Sunday, February 05, 2006

"Good" graphic novels and tears of ink

This past week, I read Joe Sacco's Safe Area Gorazde, a graphic novel that's really graphic reportage/graphic journalism/something that implies it really happened and distinguishes it from, say, Captain Carrot and the Amazing Zoo Crew. Because it's not an obvious difference. Previously, I posted on City of Glass, and prior to that, I read Maus volumes I and II. These are all class assignments. We are also doing Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan, Phoebe Glockner's Diary of a Teenage Girl, and another book to be decided.

I am pushing to read a volume of Gaiman's Sandman in that slot, preferable Endless Nights, the 11th postscript volume of standalone stories, or volume four, Season of Mists. (I am really abusing the italics tag in this entry.) However, I have realized that this will not happen, because neither meets the requirements of Comics As Literature. To be a member of the C.A.L. canon, a work has to fit two of three descriptions, other than being a work of sequential art:
1. boring and/or incomprehensible
2. autobiographical, semi-autobiographical, or featuring a character with the same name as the author
3. about genocide or mass murder

Comics As Literature, pioneered by professional indie blowhard Scott McCloud, is a concept that really bothers me. Not because comic books are not literature, but because I believe they are all literature. When the majority of comics are excluded and denigrated so that a few prestigious authors can get read in college classes and be discussed by the Modern Language Association, a great disservice is done to the medium, this medium, this medium that is my blood. My heart speaks in the language of comics. I think comics and piss comics--when I cry, they are tears of ink, and when I fall on the ground, there is a great THUD outlined in bold black jagged lines.

McCloud is adamant about comics being a valid medium, and getting comics accepted into the literary canon, and yet his dismissal in Understanding Comics both of superhero/adventure comics and the very act of collaboration undermines this effort. The prioritization of abstract/cartoonish work produced by comix-auteurs and published by independent presses over collaborative work reaching a more popular audience thoroughly pisses me off. It makes me really fucking angry.

He explicitly states, as if it were some obvious fact, that collaboration between a writer and artists (penciller, inker, letterer, colorist) gets in the way of artistic expression. Only someone isolated in an isolated, Drawn and Fantagraphics Quarterly world could ever get away with this statement. Collaboration is the bread and butter of the low, mean, my-god-joe-the-teeth, Kryptonite, radioactive platinum, silver Spear of Longinus, Seduction of the Golden Innocent comics that I love and what the universe ultimately knows as the comic book. If collaboration is a barrier to art, then I am the Queen of Spain.

This is terrible and bitter. But when my professor describes Superman as a "guilty pleasure" compared to the illustrious Art Spiegelman, who I am dead sick of, I have to fight to keep ink from leaking down my cheeks. My words come from the heart in four colors and all this bullshit makes me sick inside.


Blogger Grotesqueticle said...

Sounds to me like you need to be the one teaching the class. Seriously.

8:23 AM, February 05, 2006  
Anonymous 'rith said...

My words come from the heart in four colors

I've never seen a more apt description for the pure love of comics. I'll remember this one. Thank you.

4:12 PM, February 05, 2006  
Blogger T Campbell said...

I'm concerned that McCloud's work and attitudes might be getting misrepresented in the classroom.

While McCloud is friendlier to Spiegelman than Kirby, I don't think he's really UN-friendly to superheroes-- it'd be kind of "interesting" if he were, because his superhero Zot had 37 adventures and some of them grappled with pretty serious issues.

The real issue of collaboration he addresses is the notion that words and images might work against one another, and that's a problem that any cartoonist has to face, whether they collaborate or not. He uses collaboration to drive the point home visually but admits that "writer/artists" have the same sorts of problems.

The attitude you describe is all over comics criticism and particularly academia. But I don't think McCloud's the best example of it. But I sympathize with your frustrations, regardless.

Hang in there.

6:41 PM, February 05, 2006  
Blogger JP said...

I've encountered a little bit of this in 'respectable' comic circles.

I remember reading an introduction Spiegelman wrote to a graphic novelisation of a Paul Auster novel where he expressed somewhat similar sentiments, basically saying that he wanted to encourage more work like the Auster comic, so that his books would not in future be shelved 'between fantasy and RPG manuals'.

Can you say 'snob'?

I do appreciate the work some of these people do, and McCloud's 'Understanding Comics' opened my eyes to a lot of apsects of sequential storytelling. I think the real problem is that being embraced by the academic establishment is not necessarily a good thing for the genre. It just means the sort of self-absorbed slice-of-life fiction that clogs the modern lit. shelves now appears with pictures and word bubbles.

It's interesting to see that, on the other hand, Neil Gaiman, whose Sandman series is apparently not comic literature, is currently very interested in helping make a movie out of Charles Burns' Black Hole, a very good graphic novel, but also one that I expect the CAL ppl wld embrace.

5:41 AM, February 06, 2006  
Blogger Franny said...

T., it is possible that I am too hard on McCloud. He is really a whole different animal from comics academia snobs. I guess for the sake of a preliminary expression of frustration I lumped them all together. However, I don't think writing "a superhero comic for people who don't like superheroes" disqualifies someone from being unfriendly to superheroes...if that makes sense. I did run across a back issue of Superman Adventures that he wrote, though...weird.

JP, I just posted on City of Glass and neglected to mention that introduction...I really enjoyed the book so I focused on the positive (although it is incomprehensible and features a dude named Paul Auster...CAL!).

1:26 PM, February 06, 2006  
Anonymous JT said...


Jason Tondro here. I actually agree with you that McCloud is very dismissive of superhero comics in his books -- I cannot think of a single place where he describes such comics as well written, though he frequently argues they are well drawn. And I cannot explain this harshness, since, as has been pointed out here, McCloud has made such comics himself. Kurt Busiek is his boyhood friend, for crying out loud, does no one get credit for writing good superhero books?

However, I want to reassure you that there is hope. I use Top Ten every time I teach freshman composition here at the Univ of Calif Riverside, along with Love & Rockets, Maus and Persepolis, and my dissertation is on "the superhero narrative." My professors entirely supported my decision to have FF, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Hulk, Avengers, and Spidey on the reading list for my PhD exams.

There is a strong and growing body of young comic scholars doing work in this field. It is divided -- sometimes quite profoundly -- on the value of superhero comics vs so-called "indies." But those of us who work with superhero comics stick to our guns. I have personally presented academic papers at conference on topics like Aquaman and Camelot 3000. Papers on Sandman are so safe in these circles they're actually considered a trifle conservative.

And finally, I bring evidence of this shift: "Caped Crusaders 101: Composition Through Comic Books". Written by one of my professors at UCR, one of the most Old School and traditional profs you will ever meet.

Superhero scholars are here. We move among you, like a silent cavalry.


1:06 AM, February 07, 2006  
Blogger Ken S. said...

I'm torn on this one.

First, I think the comment re: McCloud's stance above it correct. He clearly grew up on Kirby, and I don't think he's putting those comics down so much as not elevating them.

I'm a CAL guy. I read tons of superhero comics, and I enjoy them. They're a pleasuse, and not exactly guilty. But 99% of them aren't worth the same attention as a book like Muas, for instance. Most superhero comics are popcorn movies. Nothing wrong with that, but are they worth studying, besides for the formal aspects?

Moreover, I don't think they are trying to be CAL. They don't need the same consideration. Their value is in their popularity, the shared experience of many readers, the tradition. A book like Maus has a different niche.

So: I support making the distinction. I don't know that I care for marginalizing one for the other, but I do know that good CAL is rarer, and affects me more deeply than good superhero comics. And sure, there are books that cross the line.


If you want to read some CAL that doesn't fall into one fo the categories you mention, try:

Cerebus: High Society and Church and State

From Hell (whoops, about mass murder, if 5 is a mass)

Kings in Disguise

The Golem's Mighty Swing



Funny, I wrote a blog entry on how schizophrenic a comics reader I am just today.

4:57 PM, February 10, 2006  
Blogger Franny said...

See, my main beef is this: if you're teaching an introductory class on comics criticism and theory, you can no more ignore mainstream comics than you can ignore Hollywood movies in an introductory film class.

The easiest way to learn how film works is to study accessible films--you don't learn anything about continuity editing or basic film semiology from watching Godard films, but you can get it out of James Bond, Casablanca, Speed, Star Wars, etc. Once you have the basics down, then you can watch the experimental stuff more successfully because you know what they are transgressing/subverting and what they are choosing to preserve from mainstream filmmaking canon.

I feel the same way about comics. If you are trying to teach someone to understand how they work, it makes more sense to me to look at the way the majority of published comics work as opposed to starting right in with the minority of literary, experimental, and post-modern pieces. Also, having an intellectual grounding in superhero (or horror, fantasy, war, funny animal) comics give you a better intellectual ground to evaluate the claims that people like McCloud and Spiegelman make. If you've read Watchmen, Daredevil: Born Again, Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier, Red Son, etc., Spiegelman's denigration of his work being "ghettoized" in the Graphic Novel section in his introduction to City of Glass is somewhat more dubious. I wouldn't call that a ghetto.

4:23 PM, February 11, 2006  
Blogger Ken S. said...

Well, I can agree with you there, although so many mainstream comics are bad at even the basics that I would at least expect them to pick *good* mainstream comics.

The pisspoor art and editing in the average comic makes me want to yell sometimes.

And: You could very well pick non-superhero comics to use an examples of solid storytelling techniques. Not all CAL books are subversive to medium.

Last: I would call the GN section a ghetto. If you don't like SF, fantasy, or spandex, you'll have to wade through a lot of ot to get to Maus. Most people don't/won't bother.

12:34 PM, February 14, 2006  
Blogger Ferrous Buller said...

The divide in academia between "high" and "low / pop" art is nothing new. It's something every medium and every genre has to deal with eventually on the road to literary respectability: a kind of hazing / initiation ritual, if you will. :-)

And there will always be those in critical circles who pooh-pooh popular works: the same sorts of people who laugh at the idea of Spider-man being literature also scoff at the idea of Stephen King's work being art. Still, the fact we're even having a dialogue about which comics qualify as art and which don't is proof that they've come a long way from the days when comics were regarded as disposable entertainment for children with no redeeming qualities.

In defense of Scott McCloud and his fellow comics "snobs," I don't believe his attitude is one of disrespect for superheroes so much as a fervent desire to see comics outgrow the superhero "ghetto." The fact that the American comics industry is still so heavily dominated by superheroes - making all other comics a fringe to what is already a fringe entertainment industry - must be frustrating to McCloud et al, who want to prove that comics are capable of so much more than that.

They want people to focus on the potential of the medium itself, not continue thinking that "comic books = superheroes." So if that means ignoring or pooh-poohing superheroes in their quest, then so be it: they already dominate the industry, they don't need any help. It's kinda like affirmative action for minority comics. :-)

[I'm putting manga in a separate category, since it has seen an explosion in popularity in recent years that is not paralleled by a similar interest in American comics.]

And let's face it: the vast majority of superhero comics are crap - as are most indie comics. Sturgeon's Law is alive and well in the comics industry. :-) So there is a place for imposing some form of critical standard. But like you, I don't believe it should be based on genre, but on the merits of each individual work.

2:45 PM, March 07, 2006  
Blogger R.A. Porter said...

I'm coming to this discussion awfully late, but figured it'd be worth throwing in this point. What the CAL crowd really should do is create a new category of literature and claim that their pieces are examples of that burgeoning field. It worked for "magic realism" (that's what you call SF/fantasy when you want to heap on the Nobels).

12:12 PM, July 03, 2006  

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