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.)