I was beginning to despair that no one quite understood or wanted to understand my last post on the myriad problems with comics (web or otherwise) – that is until one commentator (and collaborator on this site) put his finger on the problem in regard a review of Asterios Polyp by David Mazzucchelli. Well not just a finger – to my mind he hammered home another nail in the coffin of the comicbook medium. The comment by Chad Rutkowski is here. Although it doesn’t say everything that needs to be said it does give a great big clue as to what the outside world thinks of comix. That outside view is almost certainly more trustworthy than any view held by long-time fans of the medium like myself.
The point I was making before never really involved a Batman vs Asterios Polyp scenario, though I might have sold it in a tweet that way, but my idea was that these two things were NOT the polar opposite of each other and, critically, that Asterios was NOT as far as we like to think the medium could go. No, my problem is that the ‘great comicbook works’ of the past twenty five years or so have NOT taken us so far from Batman as we’d like to think. To sum up I believe we are looking down a particularly narrow corridor without investigating any of the rooms. We’re certainly not even looking into rooms that haven’t already been well looked into by other mediums. The novel. The film. The canvas even.
Maus is a graphic novel about the holocaust with mice as the Jews and cats as the Nazis. Now as much as you can stand back in amazement at the audacity and cleverness of this concept, I’m afraid I can equally stand stand back and say “is that it?” Don’t even talk to me about Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Okay, I’m not going to argue anything against Joe Sacco’s Palestine or Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, mainly because they don’t have to draw on the usual fantasy tropes, but even there I’m drawn back to another argument I have with comics and that is the nature of their production and the method of their distribution. Not only do these two works have to struggle to be seen amongst the rubbish but they take (like all comics) so long to produce that they are not so much out-of-date by the time we get to them but by nature have to have an air of historical document about them – so that their shelf-life is extended. Very difficult to play fast and loose in a medium that somehow paradoxically demands it.
Even then when these worthy books(!) do get the media coverage they deserve I don’t think terms like graphic novel or, worse, comic strip, do them any favours. In fact they don’t describe the product at all. Palestine and Persepolis are both books. Picture books. Illustrated stories. Call ’em what you like as long as you don’t mention comics. Okay, I know we know different. I know we know how much they owe to the past and the long history of the comicbook medium, but I assure you that no one else gives a rat’s ass!
And this then leads me back to the other point I was trying to make when asking what it is we do when we make comics. When we make comics? Is that really the most helpful way to see ourselves, to describe ourselves. Doesn’t that just beg us to be led back in the direction of all the well trod paths already worn to dry dirt by better minds and more skilled hands than ours. Shouldn’t we be striving for the new ground, fashioning a new language, beating our own paths. I’m all for enjoying what has gone before (and I do, regularly), but seriously, this is all too too lazy and predictable for anyone to be seriously interested. The medium is bankrupt. The escorts are looking like hookers.
Of course, smarter and younger people than we have forged new paths, in animation, by using sound, by clever use of the internet and its peculiar navigational possibilities, but most if not all have drifted away from comics into a multimedia world where ‘the comic’ itself is lost. Anyone would think no one had ever read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. McCloud’s book was a call to action – not a full stop.
Elsewhere, in my other dealings with the comicbook fraternity, an unpleasant word is being bandied about. A word no serious practitioner of any of the ‘higher’ fine arts would use lightly. The word is FUN! I apologise for repeating it here, but it is foremost in a number of creative minds at the moment. You want me to take you seriously, you want acclaim, credit, remuneration – but you just gotta have fun while doing it! Listen to me. The customers don’t give two hoots about how much fun you had while making the comic. Personally I want you to sweat blood and lose teeth while making your comics, but seriously, the important thing is how much FUN they, the consumers, have while reading it which is the critical factor. Not how much fun you’re having. And people tell me this is a serious medium. Sheesh!
“Fun” is not to far away from the heart of any cartoonist, Michael, and never has been no matter how serious the work itself might become. Particularly good topic for this blog, since most people here seem to agree that ULYSSES, that great and important hallmark of important literature, is essentially a comedy.
A lot of the fun in some of the comix you mentioned, even in the serious documentary moments of Joe Saccho’s work, is based on a lot of playfulness with the form of comix itself. This may not be so easy to access for new comix readers, but it definitely brings a unique charm to projects like these which are intended to step out of the mainstream. But this brings us to the crux of the argument; how much of the “exploration of new themes” is about trying to legitimize the medium itself?
Comix is undeniably a unique artform from fiction, film or painting. But, just like with best-selling novels, blockbuster movies or dogs-playing-poker on a black velvet background, comicbooks and graphic novels are a form of entertainment. As such their relative success isn’t necessarily based on many factors beyond how many people will spend money to be entertained by them. When a style or genre of movies becomes more popular than one that proceeded it, then more movies are made in that new way. But, unlike what we see in comix, very little attention is spent to convincing the audience that movies themselves can be an entertaining artform.
Most of the cartoonists you mention here are auteurs. Their goal is not so much to purely entertain the audience within a set of conventions or genre styles but to use the language of comix to present their own unique visions. But is it their goal to cross-over or legitimize the language of comix itself? Sometimes, maybe. Spiegelman certainly, but Satrapi hardly at all. MAUS was and is a major component of getting people to look past the conventions that have dominated American comix for decades. But PALESTINE and PERSEPOLIS just seem like very natural additions to a growing catalog of new books possible since MAUS and WATCHMEN were so successful.
I’d argue that we need to keep seeing and supporting work like this to see that catalog grow. That much seems obvious. But we also need to remember that comix are a unique form of entertainment and not many people think to themselves, “boy, I wish I’d brought a graphic novel with me to read on my lunch hour.” We’ll never get more people thinking like that until we give them a variety of reading experiences beyond the capes and cowls they assume that comix is all about.
I am told by them that knows that people learn in essentially three different ways– aurally, textually, and visually. Different people receive information from the world in these three categories in different proportions, but these are the fundamental tools we use in making sense of the world around us. The power of comics I think is in the combination of two of those tools.
This is nothing new– I’ve read Reinventing Comics and its synopsis of Understanding Comics and my understanding is that that’s the gist of it. But the promise of it is still there, brewing and burgeoning.
I’m not talking about direct learning– we’ve seen great examples of that I think in the “For Beginners” http://www.forbeginnersbooks.com/ series of books and most recently, masterfuly, with Logicomix, http://www.logicomix.com/en/. I frankly “understood” (to the extent you can at all) Nietzche and Sartre better after someone showed me a picture than I ever did as a Philosophy minor in college. But if comics is useful only as a learning tool that is pretty faint praise.
No, what I think is untapped is comics’ ability to render the abstract concrete and then, by the sheer arrangement and flow of the narrative, abstract again. It’s comics as a means of comprehending the world around us, as a pathway to cognition, that needs to be fully realized. When somebody creates something wholly original that plays to that strength, that is what will eventually blow the doors off and permanently elevate comics to their rightful place as an art form.
Fret not. People thought the novel was a crude form of popular entertainment until folks like Dickens and Tolstoy made the low art high.