As part of my duties as co-editor at PW Comics Week I edit our occasional “Loudmouth” feature, which is, more or less, our editorial page. Opinions, the more opinionated the better. Funny thing. Everytime I ask for topics potential contributors would like to write about, the one that comes up over and over is talking about all those crappy autobio comics. I actually already assigned that one, to A. David Lewis, very early on, ’cause he asked first, and it got a bit of comment going on the blogosphere. Lewis actually backed off pretty quickly, for the usual reason: he didn’t want to hurt any feelings by naming names.
Understandable. But then WHY does this topic keep coming up? It was also the topic of a recent Tim Hodler/Noah Berlatsky blogument in which the Hatfield-McCoy dichotomy of “your either for us or agin us!” was raised. The superhero people are always picking on the arty types, and the artoonists are always picking on the long underwear types. Praising one seems to be damning the other. Talk about polarizing. This makes the US Senate look like one happy family.
But is that really the problem? I don’t think so. The problem is that both sides are squeezing out the middle ground. I’ve covered the hegemony of the superhero pretty well here at the Beat, so as I head off to SPX, one of my very most favorite shows of the year, to hobnob with snotty indie cartooners, perhaps it is time to look at the other side: the hegemony of the shoe gazer. And there exists no finer exhibit to document this than The Best American Comics 2007.
Now before you grill me over a slowly roasting fire of Civil Wars, let me state for the record that every comic in this volume is excellent, deserving of inclusion, and I would heartily recommend giving this book to any of your friends who are on the fence about comics, provided those friends are also readers of “literature”. Edited by Chris Ware, it’s as fine a sampling of graphic literature by the Usual Suspects as you will find anywhere.
So what’s my beef? Well, the tenor of the book is struck, unsurprisingly, from the very first page, a comic called “The Horror of Simply Being Alive” by Ivan Brunetti. I think you can see where this is going. This is followed up with Art Spigelman’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!” which presents an autobiographical tale of the typical self-loathing young nerd finding solace in comics as a refuge from failure in sports, parental attention, love and even the purchase of a pup tent.
Then comes an unusually coherent intro by series co-editor Anne Elizabeth Moore, and a long essay by Ware. Once again, I have no problem with the elevation of Ware as The Cartoonist Who Lived to the average literary tastemaker. He’s one of the greatest formalists in comics history, a sensitive storytelller and he draws nice buildings. A couple of quotes interested me, however. Ware points out that he isn’t interested in genre or quotas but he is interested in the kind of formal experimentation begun by Gary Panter and continued by such folks as Paper Rad and C.F.
Writes Ware, “I think we’re at a point here where it’s becoming clear that comics can accomodate a variety of sensibilities and wildly divergent dispositions, and I wonder whether the more dramatic mode of presented scenes and situations is necessarily the only approach.”
Comics as a medium not a genre? Daring! Thus, give a formalist the reigns and he’ll chose other formalists. No surprise there. Or as Ware continues:
But even a casual flip through of the pages of this book will demonstrate a highly individual approach by each and every artist all with the aim of getting at something new or, more preceisly, real.
While I enjoy wallowing in the misery and pointlessly of the Real, the problem here, I think is that the history of great literature is full of the UNREAL and that’s what missing from The Usual Suspects. Like I said, it’s not that there’s anything in this volume (unlike last year’s odd batch) that doesn’t belong, it’s just that it’s all so, so real.
Ware arranges the contents as a journey from non fiction to fiction, but by the end we’ve only gotten to Dan Zettwoch’s account of the historical Louisville Flood. Whoa, buddy, easy there – that’s just one step removed from Countdown Presents: The Search for Ray Palmer !
In terms of scope, this books has only traveled from Soho to Nolita. What ever happened to the tradition of creators like Winsor McCay, George Herriman, Charles Shulz, Milton Caniff and Carl Barks? And Herge and Tezuka and Frank King and Jack Kirby and Chester Gould and C.C. Beck and Harvey Kurtzman?
What ever happened to Stan Sakai and Sergio Aragones? They’re actually mentioned in the postscript of the book, compiled by Moore, of the year’s top 100 comics. I can’t help but feel a frowny face coming on. Stan Sakai and Sergio Aragones are national goddamned treasures. Any club that won’t have them, I don’t want to be in.
You see, it’s not so much all those badly done autobio comics that’s the problem – we all know what they are and avoid them. It’s the American comics cognoscenti’s emphasis on a narrow canon that excludes anything tainted with the scent of imaginative storytelling. In his intro, Ware mourns the fact that Dan Clowes has produced no work in the eligibility period that could be included. While we all miss Clowes and should be happy he’s back, is he truly the ultimate lynchpin?
When Cervantes wanted to rebel against the badly written romances of his day, he didn’t write a long novel about being a smart guy who was sick of reading about the relatives of Amadis of Gaul. He made up a story! About a made up guy who had made up problems and friends, even though intelligent, sensitive readers could recognize their own foibles and dreams in those problems. Cervantes was making things up. God love him.
Some think the current boom of “literary comics” was kicked off by that NY Times magazine cover story that showed Spiegelman, Chester Brown, Joe Sacco, Adrian Tomine and Seth standing on the precipice of the new frontier. Great cartoonists all. Great storytellers, every one. I think of Spiegelman’s daring conceit that made MAUS the classic it is, using the conventions of a genre to tell the most horrific story in modern history. Brown did much the same thing in LOUIS REIL, vividly dramatizing the events of history with a style all his own. (I’m not even going to mention “Ed the Happy Clown.”) Sacco, of course, is a realist, but he uses his art to capture the truth beneath the surface, to show the most telling detail, not the only detail. Tomine has, thus far, stuck mostly to what one might call modern fiction, and it’s amusing that no one calls SHORTCOMINGS autobiographical, because he has dramatized reality. Seth, for all his self reflective obsession with the act of being a cartoonist, is also a born storyteller, as the wild flourishes of WIMBLEDON GREEN or the imagined history of CLYDE FANS show.
Imaginers, all of them. And I get that they are in search of that essential “truth” which is the hallmark of “literary.” But human beings need stories, too, which illuminate just as surely.
I relish the freedom and unselfconscious work of the new generations of cartoonists — they don’t have to live with the stigmas that seem to have scarred people like Ware, Seth and Brown in their formative years. But as good as the next gen is, the idea of crafting a story, using their imaginations, creating characters who represent their ideas and using them to play things out, doesn’t seem to have even OCCURED to most of them.
In abstract, that’s fine, but all this emphasis on the real has left a kind of disdain for people who want to tell stories. Put it this way, I’d take BONE over 50% of the stuff in BEST AMERICAN COMICS 2007 on my “best” list. There’s no shame in enjoying a fantastic tale about heroism and struggle. Sometimes the enemy is a big dragon; sometimes it’s a nagging wife and wanting to kill yourself. Both stories are valid. But you wouldn’t catch any comics snob worth his or her salt saying they thought Jeff Smith was a great American cartoonist. (He is.)
Call me a comics hick, but I think it’s one of the greatest strengths of the comics medium is its ability to create lasting iconic characters, from The Yellow Kid to Popeye to Snoopy to the Silver Surfer to Maggie and Hopey. But the current generation doesn’t seem to be able to create any character that isn’t themself. It’s significant that in BEST AMERICAN COMICS, Waldo and Jimbo are just about the only “characters.” Both were created by older cartoonists – Panter and Kim Deitch are old enough to have grown up reading their favorite comics adventures and want to replicate that in adult terms.
But as the cartoonists get younger and younger, they seem to have no interest in this. Once again, I’m not saying that EVERYONE has to be Walt Kelly, but one or two wouldn’t be bad. The problem is that they would probably get shunned by their pals and mentors if they did.
The troubling feeling that a Carl Barks or John Stanley would be impossible in todays comics world isn’t just my own, by the way. You might not think it off the bat, but PictureBox’s Dan Nadel shares some of my concerns. And he tens to put his money where his mouth is: the books he publishes are examples of people creating new characters and stories from their imaginations. The kicker, of course, is that the stories are, by usual standards, extremely abstract and difficult. I hear great things about CF, but his deliberately unreadable lettering retards my enjoyment of his work somewhat. I can see how he’s trying for the Kirby thing, but I find Kirby more enjoyable. I know people who find BJ AND DA DOGS very funny. Good for them. I find Bob Burden and Peter Bagge very funny.
I’m just going to come out and say it: Fort Thunder may have been cool and exciting and experimental and everything, but it was a dead end. I like and enjoy the work of Mat Brinkman and Brian Chippendale, and I hope they always have someone to publish their work. I will continue to purchase it. But is it really BETTER than Sergio Aragones? Isn’t it maybe AS good?
Perhaps, having been made fun of for so long, the literary wing of the comics industry too often has to show how difficult and abstract it can be. Meanwhile, traditional storytelling gets very little respect.
Oddly enough, this is not the case in Europe. There are some moody-autobio-finding-yourself comics in Europe, but the main schools are made up of storytellers. I would have to ask Bart Beatty whether Joann Sfar is thought of as a sellout in Euro circles, but Sfar has a commitment to both storytelling and craft that I find nothing short of inspiring. There is no shame in a comic book about a vampire or a talking cat when it is done as well as Sfar does it. Ditto for Trondheim.
My dissatisfaction with much of what I read these days was made painfully clear recently when I read I KILLED ADOLF HITLER by Jason. Although he lives in the US, we cannot claim the wonderful Jason — he hails from dour Norway, and his books are filled with as much vague unhappiness, bad relationships and misery as any Ivan Brunetti strip. But then something happens — murder, time travel, zombies, monsters. IMAGINATION.
In I KILLED ADOLF HITLER, a hitman with a bad relationship is hired to go back in time and kill Adolf Hitler. Something goes wrong and Hitler comes back to our time! There follows a desperate search, vows of revenge, regrets over lives badly lived, disappointment, and the ultimate triumph of true love. All in 48 pages. With no takes or overt expression by his characters. And yet you understand everything, EVEYRTHING. This guy is so good. The story, cut from the cloth of premise, development, change and denouement, satisfied me with catharsis in a way that few rambling memoirs could.
Jason’s stories are ultimately about the redemptive nature of love. They are usually cut from a similar cloth and yet they constantly delight and surprise me. That is what a storyteller does. When Dostoyevsky wanted to explore human morality, he didn’t just write a long essay abut him sitting around thinking about morality — he invented a story that illustrated his themes and called it CRIME AND PUNISHMENT.
I guess I’ve rambled on enough for one post. To sum up, I think the current craze for first person essay in comics has crowded out other genres that it does very, very well. I realize that there are many factors — economic and societal — that factor in to this situation, and many contemporary cartoonists who break out of molds. Those must be addressed another time, or perhaps in someone else’s blog. And the sad truth is that a Sakai, Araognes, Smith or Jason is as rare in this time as a Schulz or Caniff or Herriman were in theirs.
The editors of the next BEST AMERICAN COMICS are Jessica Abel and Matt Madden. They share many of my concerns over storytelling as well. I don’t blame Chris Ware for putting together a book of his friends with material he likes — hey, he’s earned it and it’s a fine book. Abel and Madden made it clear that they wanted to break out of the circle of the “usual suspects.” But they confessed that they were finding it difficult.
There is SO MUCH stuff to sift through these days; the webcomickers are the ones who are creating the kind of lasting characters that I was just longing for, but Penny Arcade and their ilk haven’t yet created the kind of emotion and subtlety that art requires. Mainstream comics are a greater wasteland than ever. The major book publishers who are putting out graphic novels are still finding their way–editorial oversight is still spotty and the glut of “non fiction” comics hasn’t had a breakout yet.
I’m not sure who the next Jeff Smith or Stan Sakai is. I only know that great fiction is great storytelling and great moments, whether it’s Molly Bloom wandering through Dublin, Indiana Jones stealing the idol, Ignatz throwing a brick, Charlie Brown kicking a football, Luba taking her kids to meet their fathers or the story twist at the end of I KILLED ADOLF HITLER. Or even the SIlver Surfer giving up Zenn-la to save Earth.
The current generation of cartoonists has amazing chops. And they are young. Great work takes some maturity, I think. The kids need to suffer. And they need some guidance and role models. My hope is that they will continue to cast a wide net for those role models. If they do, it’s quite possible that the best really is yet to come.