Over the holiday weekend, I had a chance to view Ron Mann’s documntary Comic Book Confidential, about which I will have more to say at a future date, but the 1989 film serves as a nice recap of the story until the comics shop collapse of the 90s—from Wertham to Maus and Miller, a pretty steady climb in the comics artform, and a reminder that more than 20 years ago comics were getting some serious critical examination. If the weekend’s links are any indication, it is possible that the nomination of two graphic novels for a prestigious British literary award may someday be seen as another milepost in the evolution of the general public’s awareness of the artform…certainly we are as far as we could possibly be from the comics burnings of the 1950’s. Let’s review.
First off, a few days ago Chris Ware appeared on MSNBC to talk about Building Stories with The Cycle host Touré. While we’re guessing that the idea of such a thing may have filled Ware with anxiety nightmares for weeks 20 years ago, now it seems perfectly natural, business as usual. For years, we dreamed of an Oprah Moment, and it turns out comics outlasted Oprah.
Over in the UK, where they only celebrate ONE holiday that involves massive ingestion of roast poultry, they had lots of time to contemplate what the Costa nominations mean. The Telegraph ponders whether this could mean a comics nomination someday in the even MORE prestigious Man Booker Prize:
The newly announced chairman of the 2013 Man Booker Prize has said he would welcome entries by authors of graphic novels. Robert Macfarlane, an English fellow at Cambridge and a judge in 2004, said that the works of authors such as Dickens and Wilkie Collins were produced with illustrations in the 19th century and if publishers were keen to submit them it would provoke a “great discussion”.
Ion Trewin, the man who runs the Booker Prize, said that there was no rule stopping publishers submitting a graphic novel but that none had ever done so. “I would need an awful lot of convincing,” he added.
Nevertheless, this particular link winds up with a reading list of five graphic novels, adding Shortcomings and Tamara Drewe to what seems the now permanent triumverate of Maus, Watchmen and Building Stories.
Back at the Guardian, Peter Wild is way more bullish on graphic novels as literature, quite rightly (in our humble opinion) pointing out how much excellent work has been done:
Yet as good as these books both are, the coverage of the prize should not treat them as anything special. What the commentators should be doing is sighing with relief. At last, we can all stop pretending that comics are for kids. Dotter of her Father’s Eyes isn’t alone in pinning non-fiction to a graphic form: over the last few years we’ve had Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Guy Delisle’s exquisite travelogues, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, all of Joe Sacco‘s journalism, David B’s Epileptic, David Small’s Stitches, Dash Shaw’s Bottomless Belly Button – and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Similarly, Joff Winterhart is taking up the baton from Joe Matt, John Porcellino, Jeffrey Lewis and Adrian Tomine’s early unpolished Optic Nerve work in producing punky, slightly funky strips that may look hurried and dashed off but are in fact the farthest thing from it. And that’s not all.
The comments here (and in some of the other linked pieces) get into a bit of an argument over whether GNs should be in the running for literary prizes—but not because they are inferior but because they are different. If novelist-sans-pictures Hilary Mantel was nominated for a Eisner, some ask, wouldn’t that be wrong? So maybe novels with pictures should be their own thing?
Continuing on, over in The Metro Ross McGuinness (or his headline write) bluntly confronts the question
Two graphic novels were shortlisted this week in separate categories of a prestigious literary prize. But can graphic novels ever be considered great literature like their more traditional counterparts?
[snip] Its publishing director, Dan Franklin, said people are becoming more open to reading them. He hopes this week’s Costa shortlists will become a ‘watershed moment’. He said: ‘It’s slightly crazy that Joff Winterhart’s 48-page book is up against Hilary Mantel, but on the other hand, if it gets 500 people reading his book it will be a wonderful thing. I do think it’s a work of genius but it’s just different.’ Graphic novels are special because they offer the reader a different experience, he said. ‘They reach parts that the conventional novel doesn’t.’
By now you may be wishing for Mitchell and Webb version of this discussion, but until that arrives, we’ll go back to the Guardian, where Becky Barnicoat offers the traditional narrative of the graphic novel’s ascent from Maus onwards, but includes more from Jonathan Cape’s Franklin on the technical difficulties of the form:
But while Franklin agreed the market is growing, comic books are costly investments. Jonathan Cape publishes about 10 a year, Faber & Faber publishes two or three. “Money isn’t remotely the same for comics artists as regular book authors – it’s terrible,” said Franklin. “They are often printed full colour, and the economics doesn’t allow for a huge advance to the author.” Angus Cargill, who publishes comics at Faber, says it would not be possible to greatly expand his list. “In publishing you either do loads and hope that one or two hit, or you try to find the best ones and make them count. The production costs, the time, and the fact that the comics market is smaller means we choose the second course.” Publishers are still surprised by the growing success of comics. Franklin “thought it was a joke,” when he heard two Cape titles had been nominated for the Costa, and Cargill admitted the company underestimated how well author Craig Thompson’s new comic Habibi would do. The 672-page love story based on a Middle Eastern fable was a huge seller. “We had to reprint it three times,” he said. “There are 25,000 copies in print. Much more than we anticipated.” He agreed the Costa nominations are a huge deal for comics. “It will encourage people to read books they wouldn’t have done otherwise, and make places like Waterstones much more aware as well.”
But not just England is pondering the impact of the graphic novel. In Toronto, The Globe and Mail wants to get into the act with a list of five best graphic novels from 2012. Apparently they are SO eager to join the bandwagon that the books don’t even have to be from 2012:
By Sophokles, translated by Anne Carson,
By Julie Bruck
Hark! A Vagrant
By Kate Beaton,
By Chris Ware
Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama,
by Alison Bechdel
§ And finally, in Saskatoon, Beverley Brenna goes backwards a bit by discovering that graphic novels help kids read:
Graphic novels in a variety of genres now offer reading fare alternatives to traditional narrative texts. At one time, the reading of pictures stopped at an age when juvenile picture books ceased to appeal, but now we have picture books designed for older readers, as well as visual information included in texts of all shapes and sizes. These changes aren’t bad. If our goal is to encourage wide reading for enjoyment and information, the inclusion of pictures is an asset that supports comprehension, diversifying the bait we put out to lure kids into reading.
So where are we after this literary journey? The early Aughts saw mainstream publishers jump into graphic novels without really being aware of what worked and what didn’t, with some spectacular expensive flops to show for it. Today, this slow, steady rise is a lot more solid and stable. As teacher and cartoonist Alec Longstreth said at a long ago Ignatz ceremony: “Keep making comics forever!”
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.