When Jeff Lemire’s much-admired ESSEX TRILOGY made the Top Five of the Canada Reads competition to pick the best Canadian novel of the decade, it was a great boost for the cause of comics as literature. However, when it was voted off first in the final just BECAUSE it’s a graphic novel, some of the old notions of anti-comics prejudice raised their heads. Yan Basque has an excellent writeup of the whole affair:
Essex County was the first graphic novel to make it all the way to the five finalists that are debated on the air each year. While this was a significant milestone and it gave it an edge in the competition, it was also ultimately its downfall. Every interview or discussion or critique of the book started with broad comments about the form, and what it means for a graphic novel to be part of the competition, whether it can even be considered a novel, let alone one that can be compared in terms of value or merit or impact or significance to more traditional literature. As a result, there was hardly any discussion of Jeff Lemire’s work and what is unique about it, because so much attention was spent talking about the form. The book being part of the competition became less about this particular work of fiction by this specific artist with a unique voice in Canadian (and worldwide) literature, and more about the entire medium’s struggle to be taken seriously and accepted as art. In other words, the same tired old debate people have been having since the term “graphic novel” was invented. A debate that I’d like to think most of us who read comics are over.
The Canada Reads judges seemed to have prejudged ESSEX COUNTY, mostly as not representing the kind of literacy they wanted the contest to champion. For instance Ali Velshi — best known as that loud guy who used to be on CNN — said:
At this point he was interrupted, but he came back to that idea later and added: I am coming into this competition with the very committed idea (…) that I need this to end up as a competitiont that causes people to read more, and I’m not sure [Essex County] is that solution. (…) I don’t think that’s gonna solve our problems of low literacy levels. I don’t think that’s gonna solve our problem of creative and interpretive thinking.
Debbie Travis had the most old skool dismissal of comics as lit:
I think it’s a nice book. It really is a good book. But as the essential novel? It’s like saying tweeting with 140 character gets you writing. No, it doesn’t get you writing. It actually takes it in the other direction. So the danger of that book… I think this is a shortcut. I read this in an hour and a half.
Travis, incidentally, is not an author, educator or librarian — the usual guardians of culture — but a former model and interior designer manqué who hosts TV shows about home decor.
Basque points out that despite the judge’s skepticism, the people liked it: ESSEX COUNTY was voted #1 in the People’s Choice poll with more than 50 perent of the votes. Velshi, Travis, and the rest might want to rethink their positions on the future of literacy — it’s going to be a lot more varied than they will be comfortable with, for better or worse.
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.