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Critics, Comics and Graphic Novels: Or When is a Comic Not a Comic?

Yesterday, I compared life to Watchmen, leading several people to email me the link to this New York Times article from yesterday that refers to Watchmen. Ah yes, another "are comic books books?" piece.

I can paraphrase the entire article in one short paragraph:

Hey, there are people writing novels and biographies using pictures as well as words. You should take them seriously, but I mean only take the real mainstream, famous ones seriously. Jimmy Corrigan, Maus, Ghost World, hey let's even throw in a mention of that ubiquitious pretentious guy, Dave Eggers. Oh, don't forget Harvey Pekar. And some girls are writing and drawing this stuff, too! Graphic novels aren't really comic books, they are novels with pictures, if you read the right stuff and by right stuff I mean the stuff by the guys who win literary prizes because to read anything else would be pedestrian.

Ok, so I took some liberties there. But I get tired of these articles that purport to present comic books and graphic novels as real reading material and then go on to list only the titles that a stuffy college professor would agree to let you do a paper on.

Here's what bugs me:

Comics are also enjoying a renaissance and a newfound respectability right now. In fact, the fastest-growing section of your local bookstore these days is apt to be the one devoted to comics and so-called graphic novels. It is the overcrowded space way in the back -- next to sci-fi probably, or between New Age and hobbies -- and unless your store is staffed by someone unusually devoted, this section is likely to be a mess. ''Peanuts'' anthologies, and fat, catalog-size collections of ''Garfield'' and ''Broom Hilda.'' Shelf loads of manga -- those Japanese comic books that feature slender, wide-eyed teenage girls who seem to have a special fondness for sailor suits. Superheroes, of course, still churned out in installments by the busy factories at Marvel and D.C.....

Ok, so comic books are getting more than two shelves in your local Borders. That much is true. Finding the graphic novel section in any chain book store used to be a combination of adventure and detective work. Ask an employee and they would say something like take a left turn at romance novels, go three rows down, turn right at the lawn care books, follow along the wall with the postcards and coffee mugs, look for a small mouse, follow him into the tiny hole and you'l see the graphic novel section behind the soda machine. Great. And then you get there and you'd find one tiny shelf with about ten titles, six of which were issued in 1982 and the other four on the lap of a drooling fanboy who won't budge for the next six hours.

Now the graphic novel sections are larger, but they look like they've been swallowed whole and spit out by Tokyo Pop. Gone are the fanboys, who probably found the local comic book store more to their liking. They've been replaced by giggling 14 year old girls flipping through the pages of the latest in wide-eyed-girls-save-the-world fiction (for the record, I prefer my wide-eyed girl manga from Dark Horse).

The graphic novels mentioned in the article are all certainly well done; I've read most of them. And this isn't to take anything away from Speigelman, of whom I am a big fan. But I think the author misses so much - in his effort to keep up with the required pretentiousness of a critic, he further marginalizes 90% of the already marginalized graphic novels out there by citing only what can be described as literary GNs. They are mostly navel gazing works of a personal nature, self-reflection titles meant to explore human nature. He misses the titles that the core comic fans read - 100 Bullets, Transmetropolitan, Preacher.

Sure, these are not graphic novels in the sense that Jimmy Corrigan is. They are (or were) ongoing series that are later bound in collected versions. But they are - or were during their lives - all novels in progress. By citing the GNs he did, McGrath misses out on the core of comics in general - the action, the grittiness, the bam! pow! wham! that is present even in non-superhero comics. McGrath is writing about stories that were put to pictures. Comics, at least from my end, is where writing and art flow seamlessly together. In a good comic story the art is part of the words; the words, part of the art.

I'll be honest. The part of the article that sent me into "must attack this author" mode was this:

One solution to the drudgery of cartooning is to get others to do it for you. Companies like Marvel and D.C. essentially produce comics on an assembly line: one person thinks up the story, someone else draws it, another inks it, yet another colors it and so on. Most graphic novelists tend to be dismissive of such products, but a couple of people have emerged from the factory system and attained something like auteur status -- as writers whose comics are worth paying attention to no matter who draws them. Neil Gaiman, creator of the enormously successful ''Sandman'' series, is one such figure.....

I'm sure the artists involved with Sandman would be ever so pleased to know that they are considered a "factory system" or assembly line artists. I don't think there has ever been or ever will be a series of comic books or graphic novels where the art is so intrinsic to the story, where the life of the comic is so intertwined with the visual.

Perhaps I just have something against high-minded critics. McGrath is trying hard to convince us that comics and graphic novels in particular are good reading for everyone, but by pointing his readers to the least comic-like GN's out there, he's doing a disservice to the genre he is purporting to support with this piece.

Comic books will always have an image problem. No matter how you dress them up, there will always be those who dismiss them as literary junk food for kids. Those people never look beyond Archie or a few Spiderman books. But it's also not doing the industry any good to have the graphic novel genre taken over by smarmy literary elitists like Dave Eggers or even mass-produced manga. I'd hate to see the day when the only titles on the GN shelf are either biographies done in colored panels or school girls run amok.

There's always your local comic shop if those two things aren't your cup of tea, but for the casual comic observer who might get hooked on comics after accidently finding the graphic novel section at Borders, the smaller his options are, the less likely he is to embrace the genre.

Which begs the questions: Is the problem of the graphic novel and comic book in general the history of the genre? Is it the presentation of the current generation or the the perception by non comic-readers that touching a comic will turn you into Comic Book Guy? Or are critics of the genre just a bunch of literary snobs that should be trundled up and put in a dark room and made to listen to Jason Mraz cds for hours on end?

(After writing this, I see that Alex Knapp covered this a bit more succinctly than I and says this about the article: Yeah, they give props to Alan Moore, but Moore's so good that even critics can't ignore him. Exactly.)

Links and further reading:

100 Bullets
Jimmy Corrigan
McSweeney's does comics
Everything you ever wanted to know about graphic novels and then some: Artbomb


A very good book to add to this debate is Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. Should be required reading for anybody who wants to write articles in the New York Times on this subject.

I think comics fandom has always had a bit of a chip on its collective shoulder, and it's tended to divide fans into two camps:

1. "Independent comics? Oh, sure, I read G.I. Joe and the Star Wars titles!"
2. Those who read nothing but the most critically acclaimed and/or obscure indy titles, and sneer loudly and often at anybody who might enjoy a well-crafted issue of Superman or The Avengers.

Annoying. I'm fortunate to live near a great comics shop (Big Planet Comics, 3 locations in the Washington DC metro area) that carries everything, and well.

In my personal tastes, I tend to like comics for "adventure" stories, broadly defined. Super-heroes, sure, but it's not limited to that. I think the real key to the ultimate success of the medium is delivering a wide variety of the kind of stories that can be told well in comics, but not so well in other media. Have more well-crafted Westerns, war stories, spy stories, science-fiction, fantasy, etc. I don't think the key to success is more critically-acclaimed poorly-gdrawn autobiographical graphic novels about the daily lives of tortured young struggling artists.

There's an issue of Evan Dorkin's wonderful Dork series that illustrates the divide I'm talking about nicely - it's a flip book with one half about the previously-established "Eltingville Club," 4 teenage fanboy types, and a sort of Bizarro Eltingville Club (forget the actual name) that's all pretentious 20-something would-be indy cartoonists. (The irony, of course, is that they're essentially the same, just in different ways....)

You can consistently rely on critics of most any genre to dismiss as unworthy any movie, comic, book, television program or any other creative venture that, unless it's given a free pass by being well-aged and the creator too dead to be publicly snubbed at the best parties.

I give you "As you like it," by that great sitcom writer, Bill Shakspur*.

With that one exception, I've noted that unless a work of art is such that you would never actually find it entertaining, due to being overwhelmingly depressing, such as "The Old Man and the Sea" and "Grapes of Wrath," suitably points out the overwhelming depravity and evil of mankind, such as "The Lord of the Flies," or Author Clarke's "Childhood's End," or unless it demonstrates a certain postmodern contempt for such ideas as morality and Good Triumphing In The End, they dismiss it as "mere populist entertainment."

But speaking as an artist and writer, I know that making movies is a lot better for ME than making films. I'd rather be a successful writer than a renowned author**. I sure as hell do not want to be compared to Van Gogh!

Nope. My inspirations are all those who have succeed in the struggle to make a buck.

What critics disapprove of is creators "Pandering" to the low tastes of the public.

But to quote "Doc" Lane, my theatre teacher in college - "YOU ARE ALL WHORES!"

This "art is for the artist" crap is nonsense. Art is for to get paid for. If only three people ever see it, if nobody wants to look at it, if it's something only a curator would love -

It is CRAP!

...unless you can persuade some pretentious fool to buy it for their museum. Then it's pure entrepreneurial genius...

*One of his many variant spellings.
**Footnotes prove one is more erudite than the common horde who do not know where the "splat" key is found.

Who cares what people think, when I had my store I always told people to buy what they like and not what was "popular" or "valuable"

The Dark Horse Lone Wolf and Cubs Magma/GN's are high art and seem to get some respect.

The Adaption of the Hobbit which was reprinted this year in GN format is another wonderful piece of comic art that is getting some respect.

The current trend to reprint the old 60's comics in cheep GN format by marvel is great as well as DC's Archives.

In the final assessment if you read and buy what you like (in my case Groo & Usagi Yojimbo) you will be happy and you won't care what others say

you ask the questions: "Is the problem of the graphic novel and comic book in general the history of the genre? Is it the presentation of the current generation or the the perception by non comic-readers that touching a comic will turn you into Comic Book Guy? Or are critics of the genre just a bunch of literary snobs that should be trundled up and put in a dark room and made to listen to Jason Mraz cds for hours on end?"

The "problem" is that essentially, as you said already, "..there will always be those who dismiss them as literary junk food for kids." but it's more than that, really... the genre was CREATED as literary junk food, therefore will ALWAYS have problems overcoming that stigma. Just like romance novels are literary junk food for housewives, so then are comic books and GN's literary junk food for kids... basically.

Now to be wholelly truthful, I'm no judge, since I "outgrew" comics long ago and lost interest, but it seems to me that no matter how good they are, no matter how deep they get and no matter how well-written the stories are, they are always going to get stigmatized as "kids-books." Therefore, any "critic" taking on a comic book, unless it's a hard-core junkie, will approach the "literary criticism" from that angle. It's unavoidable because of what comics essentially are (or were...).

I'm fairly certain that response should answer all three of your questions...

I'm not trying to put the genre down, since I know there are quite a few GN's that aren't even aimed at kids and are great examples of the merging of art and words, I'm just trying to answer your question from an outsider's view.

Jim - Even more ironic is that I'd say the great majority of the comics market is not aimed at kids. Hell, I doubt I'd let kids read most of the comics I read.

Comic books and GN's suffer from 'elitist' envy. Approach the comic book from the perspective of a movie and book merged and one realizes that they were in many ways the first multimedia artform, and much more deserving of praise then they recieved. I see critics sneer at comics while at the same time praising the latest dreck coming out of ABC/CBS/NBC and know to ignore them.

Me, I'm happy I got the Bookery Fantasy for my comic fix (and Role Playing fix as well, they were smart, the RPG/Card gaming stuff is in the store across the street.)

"Comic books and GN's suffer from 'elitist' envy."

Very true, and here's a great graphical representation of this:

(be sure to check out the large version too!)

I'll indulge my little fanboy heart and recommend "Kingdom Come" as one the best GN's ever. Decades of superhero comic conventions refined and distilled, and there ain't nothin' wrong with that. And it goes without saying that the Alex Ross art is excellent.