Probably my favourite quote about criticism as a discipline is Peter O’Toole as Anton Ego’s closing monologue in Ratatouille. His ode to the discovery and defense of the new as the highest calling of the critic is what I try as much as possible to use as my guiding principle, but the discovery and defense of the new is a tricky business. A lightning strike that can reinvigorate someone’s engagement with an entire medium, like The Batgirl of Burnside did for me, is something that happens once a decade at best, or in the case of John Peele discovering Elvis, once in a lifetime.
There’s a lot more to it than flying a kite in a thunderstorm hoping to get lucky. Sometimes you have to go out hunting for it, and sometimes all you can do is set a trap and wait for something that you know is on the horizon, but don’t know exactly what form it’ll take when it finally shows up. Archival Quality is, to my mind, an example of the latter.
It isn’t reinventing the wheel and is conspicuously lacking in bombast, but Ivy Noelle and Steenz’s graphic novel about a young woman trying to put her life together after a ruinous depression by taking a job in a haunted archive is what I hope we’ll look back at as an early example of a broad generational shift in how genre is used to augment deeply affecting and personal stories.
Archival Quality isn’t a brooding gothic romance or a high flying supernatural adventure. It’s an empathetic and optimistic portrayal of the difficulties of managing mental illness that quietly sketches out the virtues of a generation that has been shouted down since before it was even born.
Whether you pay much attention to the media or not these days, you’ve probably noticed the bizarre fixation that old people — mostly in print media, but also basically everywhere — have for projecting onto millennials. It usually comes in one of two flavors: blaming us for “destroying” categories of consumer goods ranging from breakfast cereal to diamonds, cars, and houses, or hand wringing at how supposedly coddled or pathologically unable to be disagreed with we are.
There was even one guy who accused millennials of squandering our ability to buy houses by eating too much avocado toast. News flash, old people: we don’t buy those things because you bought into neoliberal economic policies that vacuumed up the wealth we could have accumulated and handed it off to corporations and a class of rich people who spend millions of it speculating on giant, shiny balloon animals.
Both flavors of “Scream At Millennials For Things That Are Actually the Fault of the Screamer” are, of course, plentiful in comics, an industry where old people with poor taste treat new people and new ideas like barbarians at the gates. My favorite ways that this manifests is when the old guard accuse millennial comic book readers of not being able to handle strife in fiction and/or ridicule us, or at least the segment of us, who grind down every last intellectual property into a coffee shop AU fanfic where everyone is a barista or a patron.
What I find funniest about this pathology is that, at its core, it’s just the ramblings of creators, retailers, and fringe YouTubers getting upset at being left behind by a changing market that they refuse to adapt to.
Suggesting that millennials can’t handle strife or conflict in fiction is just a flat out lie, and is usually obfuscating the fact that a lot of people would like to see a significant decrease in the amount of rape and gratuitous violence against women in the media they consume. Sensibilities change over time, which is an apparently shocking development.
What’s hilariously ironic is that the exact sensibilities that the old guard deride are behind some of the biggest insurgent successes in comics over the last few years. The most notable is Check, Please!, a hockey comic that no one is going out of their way to claim is an earthshaking technical achievement, but everyone watched become the biggest draw at last year’s TCAF and probably the indie webcomics darling of the decade.
Check, Please! Is the warmly drawn, decidedly low impact story of a gay figure skater who takes up hockey, navigating a very different sports culture than the one he’s used to. It speaks to an audience that doesn’t need, or in a lot of cases, even want LBGTQIA stories whose verisimilitude rests on enduring slurs and gay bashing. Which is a desire that Hollywood seems to be coming around to in a significant way with the recent release of Love, Simon.
For a generation that came around to the idea of LBGTQIA inclusion in comics through dramatic stories of allyship in extreme circumstances like Judd Winnick’s Green Lantern: Brother’s Keeper and Pedro and Me or heavy-handed allegories like the Legacy Virus, the turn towards lighter, more optimistic fare like Check, Please! is a shock to the system, but it’s the hypervisible pinnacle of an iceberg that has been forming for a long time.
The younger cohort of millennials entering the comic book industry as creators now came to comics at the pinnacle of the manga boom, around the time that Marvel publisher Tom Brevoort publicly threw up his hands and relinquished the female readership to the tankobons that were flooding the book market. Of course, he reversed course almost immediately and participated in many projects over the last decade trying to target the generation that saw manga as the default and the American direct market as the oddity.
The rapid widening of the scope of available manga from shounen and seinen fare adjacent to the dominant forms of superhero storytelling like Akira or Lone Wolf and Cub into CLAMP’s genre busting oeuvre and the constellations of shoujo comics ranging from Sailor Moon to Paradise Kiss and Boys over Flowers inculcated millennials with an entirely different set of ideas around genre, storytelling, and pacing than preceding generations who witnessed the shift from the newstands to the direct market.
Frank Miller and Chris Claremont were early adopters when it came to manga influence, but it took Brian Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim, the comic book equivalent of Kanye West’s The College Dropout, to signal the arrival of American comics that had fully metabolized manga as a primary influence. In the same way that West fused the sensibilities and sounds of gangsta rap and backpack rap into a perfect weapon that permanently broke down the dichotomy that held them apart, O’Malley drew just as heavily on the grammar and expectations of superhero comics as he did manga in creating the Nintendo Realism aesthetic that powered Scott Pilgrim’s success.
What’s fascinating about O’Malley’s trajectory since the completion of Scott Pilgrim is that while O’Malley has retained the stylistic flourishes that he picked up from shounen manga along the way, he’s steadily divested himself from the hyper kinetic pacing and centrality of a physical conflict that accounted for a significant amount of Scott Pilgrim’s crossover success.
As much as his follow up, the sedate, surrealist Seconds was a departure from Scott Pilgrim, it was hardly difficult for the book market to metabolize. Low stakes, sedate graphic novels have always been a powerful niche in comics from Cameron Stewart’s similarly dream-like Sin Titulo and Brandon Graham’s mercurial, meandering Multiple Warheads to the practically documentarian quality of Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor or Adrian Tomine’s Killing or Dying.
What’s most remarkable is Snotgirl, O’Malley’s first foray into monthly direct market comics with artist Leslie Hung, a comedic rendering of the life of a social media darling’s most mundane struggles. It’s a key part of the emergence of a quiet insurgency of comics pushing sensibilities that have long been mainstreamed in the webcomics sphere in an insular part of the industry that continues to push for cliffhangers, gimmicks, and renumbering to beat back attrition and falling orders.
John Allison, Lissa Treiman, and Max Sarin’s Giant Days is the other prong of that insurgency, of particular note because it transitioned out of Allison’s webcomic Scary Go Round and straight into the direct market as a six-issue miniseries. That initial success expanded it into an ongoing series, proving that a slice of life comic revolving around college friends told in the timbre and tone of a webcomic excused from the pressures of monthly retailer orders could exist in the jumpy, hair trigger direct market.
So while a certain segment of incurious incumbents snickered and scoffed at the emergence of coffee shop AU fanfiction becoming a popular pastime, cannier operators began to shift towards those sensibilities with credible success. It’s a cohort that includes novel approaches to lesser Marvel characters like Matt Fraction and David Aja’s now legendary “Hawkguy” run or Kate Leth and Brittany Williams’ cult hit Patsy Walker AKA Hellcat. (There’s probably also a compelling argument for Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti’s collaborations on Harley Quinn and Starfire representing similar but less radical deviations.)
Both series made generous concessions to the norms of superhero storytelling, periodically invoking supervillains or a reasonable substitute to keep them just on the right side of the straight and narrow, but no one remembers either series for those concessions. The fact that those issues of Hawkeye will forever be distinguished as “Hawkguy” kind of says it all.
It was a popular, insurgent title because it spent more time and emphasis on Clint grumbling about coffee, tying the blinds into his sweatpants’ drawstring, and struggling with Tony Stark to get his home theater working than fighting supervillains in exotic costumes. Likewise, Patsy Walker AKA Hellcat is cherished primarily for its depictions of the struggles inherent to working in crummy retail jobs, meditations on bisexuality through Patsy’s roommate Ian, and the focus on intimacy between women given to Patsy’s relationship with She Hulk.
Which is at the root of why coffee shop AUs even exist at all. When a particular cohort of readers encounter a set of characters they see something particularly compelling in, they’re driven by the urge to slough off what they see as the unnecessary genre trappings they’re presented in and shift the focus onto the personality traits and relationship dynamics that they find compelling. For fanfiction writers to produce this kind of work, they have to connect with characters in a way that goes beyond their immediate gimmick. They have to see something in Superman beyond his eye beams, ice breath, and flight; see something in Batman beyond his gadgets, and so on and so forth.
Andrew Hussie’s nigh impenetrable webcomic Homestuck is more or less the apotheosis of that perspective on fanfiction. Beneath the haphazard, byzantine worldbuilding and disjointed execution the fanbase has found something so compelling about the central characters that they’ve spun them off into a dizzying array of different alternate settings from coffee shops to pirates and all stops in between. It’s enough to give Uatu the Watcher a migraine, but the underlying point is that the fundamental relatability (if not portability) of the personalities and relationship dynamics of the central characters is the most coveted aspect of engagement with a given comic for a significant portion of the contemporary readership, and it bears paying attention to.
Fannish quirks, fixations, and modes of production are things that are always being subsumed into the mainstream, especially when creators with backgrounds of engagement and participation in those spaces crossover directly. Popular fan fiction writers have infiltrated prose romance in a way that is reshaping the genre in a fundamental, lasting way that is being overshadowed by the morbid fascination that E.L. James’ Fifty Shades trilogy (adapted from a Twilight fanfic) inspires and comics is no different.
Fan vernacular has obviously been creeping into mainstream comics for quite some time as the recent history of Squirrel Girl from Dan Slott to Ryan North attests, but subtler ways of thinking and structuring stories have also accompanied it. The psychology behind writing fan fiction to explicitly cater to specific desires is a fundamental element of Stjepan Sejic’s Sunstone, and prioritizing the analysis of a given relationship dynamic over the individuals or the story they exist in was a key part of my interview with Meredith McClaren for her upcoming Super Fun Sexy Times graphic novel, as two examples.
Archival Quality emerges as a sterling example of that, trading metafictional, winking references to fan vernacular for a recognition of lessons learned from wearing fannish goggles being subsumed into the bedrock of the story being told. Concerns of genre, pacing, and the need for a central physical conflict fade into the background of Archival Quality, existing, if at all, in service to its portrayal of Cel trying to put her life back together and manage her mental illness after it robbed her of her dream job.
As much as Archival Quality represents a convergence of distinctly millennial ways of thinking and creating, it also, intentionally or not, reflects older storytelling wisdom that makes its way into comics far less often than it ought to. The most amusingly ironic aspect of this is how much Archival Quality’s aversion to normative ideas of conflict mirrors the favored approach of legendary millennial lecturer Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin has long championed an alternative to the typically binary forms of opposition taken up in popular fiction, choosing to step away from intrinsic value statements of good and evil in the competing interests of his characters.
He advocates looking at the primary characters as being a group of people with individual, competing agendas rather than heroes and villains, which frames conflict as the friction that occurs when those desires clash, rather than a simplistic ideological battle. It’s most easily legible in Archival Quality in an analysis of the dynamics between Cel, her supervisor, and the ghost whose fate Cel becomes infatuated with. The most intense clash of interests occurs between the supervisor and the ghost, the former concerned primarily with the continued survival of the institution backing the archive and the latter singularly focused on escaping the trauma of being victimized by the institution in life and being objectified in death as items in a catalog.
Noelle and Steenz apply particular care to not villainizing the supervisor, treating his strange, antisocial habits and hidden agenda as another mystery for Cel to resolve on her path to managing her mental illness rather than a symptom of a deeper villainous nature. It’s a mystery that, much like Cel’s quest to identify and aid the ghost, works in service to increasing her ability to empathize with others and create new emotional bonds in the wake of her debilitating depression.
The other major piece of older generation writing advice that Archival Quality exemplifies is, as Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal recently articulated in interview with Larry Wilmore, that the more specific a character’s experiences are, the more relatable they become. It’s an idea that bears itself out fairly easily when looking at the history of sitcoms, which have been a critical environment for shifting popular attitudes towards marginalized groups by building characterization from a set of concerns and experiences that resonate outside of demographic markers to establish common ground.
It’s a legacy that Black-ish most transparently furthers by applying the nuances of the Black condition overtop of a suburban family that deals with a lot of the same triumphs and challenges. Rainbow’s internal struggle to decide whether to go back to work as a doctor after having her fifth child and what it feels like politically and socially to be a career woman contemplating a shift to stay at home mom cuts across all women of all races, even if there are dimensions to it that are unique to Black women.
It’s a line of thinking that comics, and superhero comics in particular, have struggled mercilessly to adapt to over the last thirty years. One of the clearest and sharpest examples of that failure is the seemingly permanent bifurcation of Marvel’s flagship titles. There are waves of new, racially and gender diverse legacy characters who step in to replace incumbents: Miles Morales, Jane Foster, Laura Kinney, Nadia Pym, and so on, but with the notable exception of Kamala Khan as Ms. Marvel, they aren’t given serious, extended shots at replacing those incumbents. (Or carving out a niche independent of their predecessor as Kamala has.) The legacy characters have almost universally been placed in the line-up as niche offerings who end up competing in the marketplace against the incumbents they’re supposed to be replacing.
Miles has to share shelf space with Peter Parker, Sam Wilson had to compete with Steve Rogers when Marvel had two different Captain America comics running, The Mighty Thor (starring Jane Foster) had to compete with The Unworthy Thor, fronted by the incumbent Odinson. Instead of increasing Marvel’s market share, it fractured the existing market for those titles, cannibalizing each others’ sales numbers instead of growing in tandem.
Whatever the intent, the strategy was a financial disaster and projected the attitude that Marvel didn’t believe it could trust any of its flagship series to thrive without a white, male lead who presumably casts the widest net in terms of potential readers. It’s the same attitude that was read into David Gabriel’s infamous remark that Marvel’s sales slump was due in part to readers turning their noses up at female and POC leads.
As a result, we haven’t been given the opportunity to see if Rosenthal’s perspective on relatability and market success can work for Marvel, because their messaging from top to bottom has been that Peter Parker is the irreplaceable default and Miles Morales is the niche character who exists as a half-hearted outreach effort. It’s a message that feels sharper than ever as the House of Ideas undergoes a massive rollback of legacy characters that includes Jane ending her run as Thor and Laura Kinney stepping back into the X-23 monicker to make room for her father.
Archival Quality’s creators aren’t saddled by the kind of entrenched corporate thinking that comes from being a Disney subsidiary, so they have the full freedom to pursue the allegedly riskier path of believing that relatability emerges in the details rather than assumptions of normativity as the path of least resistance. It’s probably the most critical success of their approach, focusing the narrative on Cel’s struggle with mental health to pull in the reader and making the supernatural elements something that flows out from it.
It’s a choice that resonates with me deeply because I encountered Archival Quality at a time when I was emerging onto firm ground from a brutal and destructive depressive swing that define most of 2015 and 2016 as a gaping black hole eating at the back of my mind. I’m white, trans, and in my thirties; Cel is black, cis, and in her twenties, but that did nothing to mitigate the intensity of my understanding of her struggle and how it mirrored my road to relative stability over the last year.
Cel pouring herself into the work at the archive as a means of plowing forward with her recovery and using the work as a distraction to stay out of her own head resonated with me directly because it was more or less the same stance that I took when I enrolled in college in the fall of 2016. College was a means of survival, a task that I could apply myself to and dig myself out of the hole I’d fallen into. Just like Cel, it wasn’t the best idea in the world and it came with consequences, but also just like Cel, I don’t regret it because I adapted, I stayed determined, and I have better, stronger relationships as a result.
One of the things I cherish most about Archival Quality is that it resists the temptation to treat mental illness like something that is firmly defeated by a clear, singular pathway, which is a reflection of reality but also an extension of how Noelle and Steenz steer their narrative out of cheaply satisfying, binary ideological struggles. It isn’t a didactic story. It isn’t the inspirational story of a personal conquest. It’s the clear eyed portrayal of a young woman pulling herself out of the rubble of a shattering depression the only way she knows how. It’s a model for storytelling that deserves to be studied seriously because it presents one of a multiplicity of pathways forward for comics at a time when the drive to drag us several rungs backwards on the evolutionary scale is at its strongest since Wertham.