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Can anyone here tell a story?

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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.

  1. I’ve been ruminating on this for years. Watch documentaries like COMIC BOOK CONFIDENTIAL, and note the number of non-superhero creators who snark on super-hero comics. And at the same time also bemoaning that the industry gets no respect. Amazing.

  2. Great story. I just picked up “the Best American Comics” and frankly it’s nothing close. Maybe the Best American Cartoonists, but certainly not comics. Where are the stories from Vertigo, DH, and a host of other more “commercial” publishers? One would hope that there might be some relationship between such a book and the many awards given out for 2007. We already have D&Q Quarterly, Mome, etc. to cover the avant-garde comics. Any casual reader of this volume is unlikely to get into reading comics unless they are particularly smart and cognizant of art theory. I would have added chapters from The Walking Dead, DMZ, Casanova, Rex Mundi, Fable, All Star Superman, and Daredevil. I’m sure othera can think of more. Using the Comics Journal type editorial stance to pick the stories does a profound disservice to the medium as a whole. I continue to be amazed at the inability of the business people behind comics to move the field forward. Why is there no two volume trade for Transmetropolitan? It would be easier to acquire than eleven slim trades and should be possible to price at at $30.00 or lower a piece. If royalties are the issue then the publishers need to start talking to their creators about deals that would encourage such collections. Showcase and Essentials are not the answer nor are archive and absolute editions. Those are for the “fanboys.” The big companies need to get a spine and show some spine on the bookstores. Dark Horse seems to be heading in the right direction with it’s omnibus titles, and Marvel is doing some interesting things with it’s Omnibuses. DC is clearly asleep at the wheel which is sad as they have both the material and the deep pockets to change how comics are bought. quarter inch thick Trade paper backs are for fanboys, fat color omnibuses are for the general public. Unfortunately I’m still pretty pessimistic.

  3. More strawmen — you’re still not naming names. What goes in and what goes out, Heidi? Invoking hazy memories of Silver Surfer and the general admiration most of us hold for Stan and Segio and then running that up against Chris’s very specific take on a very specific task isn’t fair. It’s loaded argumentation.

    And who are these snobs who won’t recognize Jeff Smith? I have as much claim to the King of the Comics Snobs throne as anyone — I’ve written the most to the widest audience on Fort Thunder, to use one of your own touchstones — and I extol Jeff’s virtues all the time! The Comics Journal put Bone in the Top 100 and one-volume Bone on its short list of best books in a very competitive recent year. Art Spiegelman recommended Jeff to Scholastic! That doesn’t mean there aren’t people who don’t like Jeff Smith, just as there probably were people back in 1966 who thought Kirby sucked, but the bulk of people defined by this wave of hand admire and respect Smith.

    Fort Thunder isn’t only the kind of thing you can call a dead end — that’s a group of cartoonists that loves storytelling! Mat Brinkman’s Multi-Force (a D&D adventure, for pity’s sake) and Brian Ralph’s latest round of zombie comics are exactly the kind of genre storytelling you’re talking about, Heidi. So I don’t get that at all.

    Just overall, I think you’ll find that some of the biggest backers of Kirby, Smith, Rude, Aragones, Cooke and Sakai are the supposed snobs, and some of the *only* backers of ripping yarns like Jason, Mourning Star and The Secret Voice are the supposed snobs. Just because they don’t like every last example of genre someone else likes, and just because they feel the balance of excellent material comes in one area over another, doesn’t mean they have anything to do with a retreat from certain types of storytelling. And certainly not when compared to the blinkers that industry players and buyers put on in service of the one or two specific kind of comics that dominate certain marketplaces. I’ll put my library shelf to a diversity battle against anybody’s out there. And I respect anyone who comes at their non-diverse library shelf through rigorous application of well-defined standards. I’ll disagree with them, but you don’t need to see their position as corrupt or deficient. Sheesh.

    Also: I think you forgot manga. The end.

  4. What about Flight?
    Four thick volumes of sheer fantastical whimsy by dozens of very young creators.
    Dosn’t it prove that your thesis of new creators only producing autobio or realism is false?

  5. Oops, “The big companies need to get a spine and show some spine on the bookstores”

    should have read

    The big companies need to get a spine and show some spine on the bookshelves

  6. “Dosn’t it prove that your thesis of new creators only producing autobio or realism is false?”

    I don’t think she was saying that ALL new creators ONLY create fantasy – just that there’s a very large group of very talented “up and coming” cartoonists who seem to have no interest in creating work in those areas. I think this essay is exploring the politics of a particular type of creator (and reader), so I don’t see why anyone should have to get their panties in a twist. So you have broader tastes – excellent. Good for you.

    But the book is called Best American Comics, and that encourages debate. It invites us to question the term Best and what sensibilities came into play in selecting those works. If the collection seems to embody a particular bias against fantasy storytelling, its acceptable to look at that and think about how that reflects not only on Ware but the current state of the medium as well. Otherwise, they’d just call the book “hey, here’s this guy’s favorite comics this year!”

    Its OK if you disagree with Heidi’s take on this, and its OK if you think she generalizing, but you can’t attack her for suggesting that there are some readers and creators with bias for or against certain narrative forms and genres. Just take a look at the Newsarama board sometime.

  7. Feh. Well, if you get Chris Ware to edit a ‘Best American Comics’, you’ll get pure realism. Honestly, I was disappointed with both 06’s volume and 07’s, it seemed like personal tastes rather than personal judgements. Autobio comix are all well and good, but that’s not what young people are reading. Mostly, young people find weird and fun comics of thier own, or just fly to manga. In any case, the future moves on!

  8. Also, I just want to add that Perry Bible Fellowship and Dinosaur Comics, I certainly wouldn’t hesistate to call art. I don’t know if the first one is considered a pure webcomic, but it grew popular as one.

  9. Well-said, Heidi.

    As happy and swell as it is for comix, webcomics and “literary graphic fiction” to have come so far recently, I’ve long agreed that what’s being held up as the creme-de-la in that milieu of anthology seems in dire need of a wah-wah pedal, a drum machine and a toe-curling orgasm. Art and story can and should be fun and sexy and disorienting and still be a masterfully well-crafted experience.

    Not only is there such obvious room and desire for a much wider breadth of material in comics (just as in Asia)… but much of it’s already being created all around us, only to be segregated by an editorial vision and talent pool that reinforces a sallow public face for such an imaginative medium.

    Whether the sea change happens on paper or onscreen, what’s key is that more and more creators young and old are creating the kind of comics they want to read and finding that their readers are already out there, waiting.

    The tidewater is rising. Patience…

  10. Maybe the best way to sum it up is “Why aren’t there more fantasy elements in independent comics?” I don’t mean fantasy as goblins and swords, but stories not based on the near-reality storytelling mentioned here. Marvel/DC comics tend to absorb most fastastic elements/stories because of the subject matter, but possibly because of their nature as corporate comics, they don’t have the same creative strength.

    A good number of the noncorporate comics and creators that fall into this category seem to originate from before the market collapse of the 1990s. I don’t know if that means that the market is losing variety due to nevel-gazing by both the mainstream and non-mainstream audiences, or, more likely, it’s just that webcomics is a much easier way to get your story out.

  11. There is absolutely NOTHING that indicates this is an exploration limited to one mindset within comics as opposed to one about the prevalence of that mindset and how that one mindset affects all of comics.

    Heidi doesn’t qualify “generations of cartoonists” with anything beyond “new” so the fact that Flight cartoonists are successful, well-liked, well-praised and don’t suffer the shunning of their peers is totally to the point. Ditto the dozens of other examples of successful cartoonists who embrace story-driven work. As is the ridiculousness of point spinning out of the inflation of the argument, such as that nobody in the comics cognoscenti admits Jeff Smith is a world-class cartoonist when they’ve driven that talk. And so on.

    The Best American Comics 2007 is of course worthy of debate, so debate it. It’s right there. But to do this, you don’t need to fudge your arguments eight ways to Sunday to give it a generational, across-the-medium weight it doesn’t deserve. Especially when to do so leads you into areas that are completely untenable, like the Jeff Smith statement.

    A real argument would involve fewer invocations of the sunsets of Shalla-Bal and more “Here are five comics better than these five comics in Best American Comics and here’s why. What does that say about Chris Ware’s take on comics?” And then “How widespread are those biases?” Not this. This is just silly.

  12. I think you have hit on a definite trend here, Heidi. But it is not just “Art Comics”. By definition they will always prefer a Literary Metaphor to a Flight of Fancy, and so will always tend to err on the side of Realism. But the very same complaints are being leveled against “Superhero Comics” as well, that they are too dark, too depressing, trying to force real world limitations onto what is inherently escapist fantasy.

    That’s the real question, why so many creators on both sides of the aisle (as if there were only two) are so willing to be so depressed about everything. Is it, as you say, a need for validation, “putting away childish things”? Is it the failure of success, in that now that the world is watching, creators feel compelled to produce more mass market enetertainment than the niche explorations of imagination that drew them to comics in the first place? Is it a larger social force at work, with all of Western Civilization moping about, unsure of what to do with itself? Or is it just the pendulum swinging back, and the next Crisis at DC will place Keith Giffen’s Ambush Bug at the center of the New New JLA, while a generation of autobiographical cartoonists take their cues from Sergio Aragones’ “I killed Marty Feldman”?

    Personally, I vote for the pendulum as the major culprit, with all the rest supporting such an extreme swing. But it doesn’t make me any more hopeful about the state of comics as a medium, until my grandkids start asking about those “Showcase Presents Metamorpho” sitting on my shelves.

  13. I think the broader implications of what Heidi is saying are well-taken, though people might quibble with the examples given. Stories are paramount is what she’s saying.

    I haven’t read The Best American Comics 2007, but I have read “Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!” in the Virginia Quarterly Review. It strikes me as a series of visual ruminations — more like drawn poetry than a story, something with a story behind it, like all good poetry, but not the story itself. And that is a valid way to use the medium, I suppose. So the point of disagreement is in the assertion that comics are for stories. Are they? I love stories, but I have to acknowledge that the medium is for more than just the traditional stories with created characters, and a conflict-development-crisis-resolution-denouement plot. That said, I still want stories when I read comics.

    Justin: Maybe the best way to sum it up is “Why aren’t there more fantasy elements in independent comics?”

    I don’t think that’s a good way to sum it up at all. It equates telling a story with fantasy elements, and that doesn’t work. Also, fantasy elements do not necessary mean good storytelling. A lot of the stories in Flight are beautiful and whimsical but thin on story.

    What I’m think is that you know how when comics wanted to convince everyone that they weren’t for kids, all that awful “grim and gritty” and fantasy T & A stuff came about? The elevation of serious comics realism might be the backlash to that. But in the focus on realism, the artificial elements of storytelling — the imposition of plot and theme and perceptible character development — might have been left too far behind in comics that aren’t in the superhero genre.

    Not to be too self-serving, but I think the middlebrow indie comics are trying to fill that gap. There you’ll find your Scott Pilgrim and Emo Boy and Rex Libris. You’ll find romances like Paris or Love the Way You Love. TokyoPop’s original graphic novels have been impressing me, too. The creators are young and still developing, but they care about characters and stories.

  14. There’s High-Brow comics , there’s Low-Brow comics , but for my money this thing only sticks when there’s a massive bunch of Middle-Brow comics. The stuff that everyone can read and like/dislike, when we’ve had a few ‘Sex & The Citys’ a few ‘Sopranos’ and maybe 2 or 3 ‘Six Feet Unders’ THEN we’ll really be getting someplace.

    Man cannot live on Star Trek and Sartre alone!

  15. I’ve got about a million responses to this piece ruminating in my head right now, none of the nice, but I haven’t the time to delve into them. Perhaps a separate post on Blog@ is called for.

    I did want to say that citing Carl Barks and John Stanley seems awkward to me since these are artists who did comics based off of well-established and defined properties. True, they were able to flesh them out to a degree unthought of previously — I’m not arguing their respective genius — but they were working in a specific commercial and narrowly defined field. To wail that no one seems to be doing the same type of work seems to me to be missing the point.

    Oh, and citing Ulysses and Raiders of the Lost Ark in the same sentance gave me what I will now call “WTF whiplash.”

  16. And here we can break it down to what a) readers are looking for in a story (is it entertaining to them, does it speak to their sensibilities, is it intellectually/formally interesting to them, etc.), and b) creators are getting out of the work they are making (self-expression, entertaining an audience, challenging the boundaries of the art form, etc.) Going beyond the strict definition of story, which can include or exclude any number of works (is a single panel Family Circus strip a story? – it works because there’s an allusion to a sequence of events prior to the moment the panel depicts, so you could argue that), I think we’re starting to get into an area of reader expectations and subjective definitions. What are we looking for in our entertainment? Hell, what is entertainment? What I may find compelling may bore the pants off you, and what I might find delightful or resonant may mean absolutely nothing to you (look at the people who just don’t “get” manga – it isn’t just cultural differences because a lot of non-Japanese folk seem to get the themes and conventions in manga just fine.)
    Can narrative be separated from story? All this may be academic, but I think when it comes to talking about the work of guys like Ware and their sensibilities, you have to start thinking in ways that go beyond defining story as A wants C, but must overcome B to get it. Which is why I like Heidi’s essay. It calls into question THESE issues. The perception that there’s a lack of story-telling doesn’t mean that there is, but it does call into question the sorts of things Ware talks about in his piece in the book – what is the role of narrative in comics? Should we be rethinking the role it plays in comics? If we strip away story, or narrative, is it even comics? Can it be called sequential art if sequence isn’t even relevant?
    Again, maybe all academic and folks in Europe have been writing about these issues for a long time. Still, it’s a worthy debate when the comics people are exposed to in the New Yorker are created by guys thinking about these very issues.

  17. Me, I like both, and get uncomfortable when I have to listen to one bash the other. I’ve heard people say that they are ashamed to be associated with comics, because of superheros, and cosplay, and all that stuff that some fans find joy in, and I’ve also heard people talk about what snobs small press people are. I would think that this behavior would make us all look bad to someone on the outside looking in. Who ever that person may be, we really don’t need to justify ourselves to them, which it really what we’re trying to do, isn’t it? Once we realize that, all this banter will stop.

  18. One of your best posts in a long time.

    I think the biggest problem with these “best comics” books is that they have to concentrate on short-form work, and it seems like a large percentage of the short stories done in comics are autobiographical or real. Is that a reflection of the work (that it only bears up for a few pages), a reflection of where the work is originally being published (is MOME weighted heavily toward autobio?), or a reflection of the industry (not enough short stories being published)?

    Plus, let’s not forget, writing satisfying short stories is hard! Telling a complete story in just a few pages — not many can do it.

    The first “best comics” book from ibooks (now in remainder bins everywhere) contained a lot of excerpts from longer works. So it was more comprehensive, but it was a less satisfying read, because you didn’t get many complete stories.

    I’m looking forward to buying this book, but I’d also love to see more short-story format comics in general.

  19. Random thought just sparked by reading this essay and its comments: Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” is a terrific work of cinema, and may well be one of the most influential films ever made. It’s also about a bunch of guys with swords chopping each other up, and it’s very good at being a movie where guys with swords chop each other up. At its heart, I don’t think “Seven Samurai” was really that far from the throwaway chambara films that preceeded it.

    No film scholar would ever dream of excluding “Seven Samurai” from a list of the top 10 films in history simply because it’s about a bunch of guys with swords chopping each other up and is pretty good at that.

    In contrast, Heidi brought up Stan Sakai in the comics world. I think “Usagi Yojimbo” is one of the best comics available today in terms of Sakai’s craft. He knows how to pace his scenes. He knows how to construct an emotional moment for maximum impact, and how to communicate volumes through body language and expression. He works terrifically well in characterizing his cast of dozens of regulars and tells stories on a micro and macro level. “Usagi Yojimbo” is also fundamentally about anthropomorphic animals with swords chopping each other up. Unlike “Seven Samurai,” though, I feel that Sakai is criminally overlooked by the fights-and-tights comics crowd, the indie snob comics crowd, AND the manga crowd. Why is that?

  20. This discussion is very reminiscent of the speech that Stephen King gave upon winning the National Book Award:

    http://www.nationalbook.org/nbaacceptspeech_sking.html

    Most of the relevant passages are towards the end, but the whole thing is interesting reading for those so inclined.

    My understanding is that this dichotomy mirrors the larger schism in book publishing between “literary” and “genre” fiction. It seems that in literary circles the idea of plot and character — storytelling, in other words — are considered trite and “artificial,” that real life does not follow the Aristotlean Poetics and so neither should their writing. Hence the number of autobiographical works and other stories where the traditional ideas of rising/falling action and denoument are ignored…which I don’t necessarily have a problem with, except that in many cases it seems like the rejection of traditional storytelling is the entire point of the work.

    And I guess that’s my problem: As a writer, I’m all for pushing the art form and trying new ideas in storytelling — we can always get better — but not at the expense of _telling an actual story_. I can admire artists like Chris Ware and Chester Brown and the rest, but have never had an emotional connection to their work (and no one has ever been able to explain the attraction of Ignatz to me).

    The alternative, however, is not to solely read superhero comics (or Marvel/DC comics) any more than it is to solely read literary comix. It’s to find the best works, wherever they lie on the spectrum. “Best American Comics” doesn’t really appear to do a good job representing that spectrum, but then it seems less like it’s designed to truly showcase the best storytelling in comics than to demonstrate the maturity of comics to their New York literary brethren. And that’s fine, as far as it goes, but it’s not what I’d hand to a friend or family member unfamiliar with comics and all that they can achieve.

  21. “the current generation doesn’t seem to be able to create any character that isn’t themself.”

    You couldn’t have summed up my opinions more pithily if you tried.

  22. “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.”

    Go on sifting. The strong, subtle webcartoonists are there. Thomas K. Dye and D.C. Simpson. Jennifer Diane Reitz and Joe England. Some in their late thirties and forties, some who have come a remarkably long way in a few years. And believe me, some of them have had more than their share of suffering. It’s not all juvenalia out there.

  23. If you really think that Chris Ware and Chester Brown don’t tell stories, I don’t know what to say . . . Rusty Brown and Louis Reil, for example, are stories, with plots and characters, and ups and downs etc . . .

    I think people on this thread say “story” but reallly mean “the kind of story I like.”

    “_telling an actual story_.”

    So are they telling fake stories?

  24. “Me, I like both, and get uncomfortable when I have to listen to one bash the other.”

    Ditto.

    I read both. I think there are really good books put out in a variety of genres. I wish people on both sides of the chasm would take the time to see what the other is doing.

    And I think Jeff Smith is a good cartoonist. that’s for Bone and for Captain Marvel.

  25. Oh Tom, what? Heidi’s arguments are silly and untenable, the specifics aren’t supported by facts and they play to people’s self-pitying conception of why certain works they like or they support aren’t popular with absolutely everybody — or as popular as they think they should be.

    I mean, come on! There are SO MANY narrative-interested young cartoonists out there, none of whom seem to suffer from the sneering derision of their peers or critical derision from some cognoscenti. Their comics are praised and loved. The current Comics Journal, a bastion of elitism so despised it’s an adjective in this thread, sports a Supergirl cover!

    Even the examples given don’t make any sense. She extols the virtues of Jason like he’s some obscure and unappreciated source of awesomeness. But he’s had like ten books published in America, the vast majority of them super well-liked by everyone. Jason has had this success instead of Lars Fiske because his comics are good and they provide compelling narratives to which people react.

    So Chris Ware and maybe a few others like JC Menu have a conception that doesn’t think Sergio Aragones is as awesome as David B. So what? The vast majority of opinion makers who value art comics and mark making value narrative and craft, they have done so in public over and over and over, and the vast number of cartoonists of that type thrive as well as any other kind.

    This is like when the Republicans complain that some sort of combination of George Clooney and entrenched Washington staffers totally means that conservative ideas don’t get a fair shake in America, no matter how many statehouses, branches of federal government and polls say differently.

  26. I don’t know about all of this. I think it’s important to remember that that particular book reflects Chris Ware’s tastes as an editor; not “the current generation”‘s as a whole.

    Just as last year’s Best American Comics anthology reflected Harvey Pekar’s tastes, and as next year’s will reflect the tastes of Abel/Madden’s and whomever that book’s guest editor is. It’s just one book, not the field as a whole.

    If you really want to get an idea of who’s getting respect from the SPX world of “snotty indie cartooners”, it seems like SPX’s list of guests of honor might give a more accurate picture: Gilbert Hernandez, Bill Griffith, Kim Deitch, Rudu Motan, Matt Wagner, and yes, Jeff Smith.

  27. “but then it seems less like it’s designed to truly showcase the best storytelling in comics than to demonstrate the maturity of comics to their New York literary brethren.”

    Not this again . . . . “Anti-Art Comic Author Psycoanalysis Claim #1”

    Though you don’t know Chris Ware, from a surface reading of his work (one that’s so ‘deep’ that it can’t even recognize that there’s a story there) you are convinced that he is desperate for love and acceptance — every thing he does is about appealing to to elite . . .

    This is like saying every Marvel writer suffers from castration anxiety because he/she writes about superheroes . . .

  28. “This is like saying every Marvel writer suffers from castration anxiety because he/she writes about superheroes . . . ”

    They don’t?…

    And Tom, I guess I pulled something out of her piece that either wasn’t there or that you don’t think is worth noting. It made me think about some things and on that level I found it very effective. Whether or not Heidi will win a ribbon at the debate after school is something for you to judge. Not being snarky there – you have alot more experience in comics journalism than me and are looking at it from that angle, while I simply read the essay from the point of view of a guy who reads and thinks about comics when he can.

  29. Ken:

    “I think people on this thread say ‘story’ but reallly mean ‘the kind of story I like.'”

    Well, what I meant is “not a formalist exercise.” And much of Chris Ware’s output strikes me as exactly that. Less concerned with the plot, more so with the methods used to convey it. Admittedly such things aren’t to my taste, so you may be right in that respect, but my point is that it’s not about which stories I happen to like or not, it’s about a preference for storytelling over formalism.

    “So are they telling fake stories?”

    Well, it would depend on the exact work under discussion, but I was referring to things which are not, in fact, stories at all. They may be art, but they are not stories.

  30. Ken says:

    “Though you don’t know Chris Ware, from a surface reading of his work (one that’s so ‘deep’ that it can’t even recognize that there’s a story there) you are convinced that he is desperate for love and acceptance — every thing he does is about appealing to to elite . . .”

    Um, no. No where did I say he was desperate for love and acceptance, or that everything he does is about appealing to the elite. Just making the observation — and I didn’t think that it was a particularly controversial one — that the collection seems more oriented towards the Spiegelman/Ware literary crowd, and less towards the all-around “best American comics” (whatever those happen to be).

  31. Sean, I’m glad that you got something out of it. But please: nothing I’ve written in quick response here this afternoon says anything about people not being able to get something out of it. I got something out of the Claire Danes Mod Squad movie; that movie still sucked ass.

    I’m not so interested in showing that the argumentation is bad to win my National Forensic League pin as much as showing that the argumentation is so bad I hope it puts her central thesis into doubt, despite its emotional appeal.

  32. Thanks for the response.

    “storytelling over formalism.”

    I resist all oppositions like this (or “Literary Comics” and “genre comics”),
    because I think they tell us far less about the works than we might think.

    Ware is the perfect example of someone who is clearly interested in a kind of storytelling that ofte uses the comics form in new ways. Yet he has dozen of stories that have very conventional plots and feature reccuring characters etc . . .

    “to demonstrate the maturity of comics to their New York literary brethren.”

    Why not assume that it’s the work that Ware thinks is best? You assume that the motivating principle is “demonstrating maturity” — sounds like some quick pyscholanlaysis to me–

    My feeling about all of these kinds of threads is that they reveal that people who criticize “art comics” really haven’t read that many – which is fine. I just don’t see the need to create weak arguments based on false binaries to defend your taste, which don’t need defending.

  33. Tom Spurgeon, if you’re going to pretend to have diverse populist tastes, at least try to get your facts straight. That’s Power Girl on that cover, not Supergirl!

  34. Tom makes some good points and I get where he is coming from. It’s not as if the people Heidi mentions don’t get respect from the comics journalism industry. Didn’t Darwyn Cooke get a 22 page handjob last month? Flight is pretty much what she’s looking for

    I think it’s a bit silly to expect it from a book called Best American Comics edited by Chris Ware. This is like seeing Fun Home on Wizard’s best list. I flipped through it and it looked like typical whiny white person hipster shit which appeals to the Eggers/Mcsweeneys crowd that Ware is part of. I can only imagine this list if a typical Marvel/Dc fan selected it.

  35. “not a formalist exercise.”

    I can’t really see Ware’s work as an “exercise.” This really seem to diminish the seriousness of his work and his skill. It’s a cheap shot masquerading as neutral language.

  36. Ken says:

    “I resist all oppositions like this (or “Literary Comics” and “genre comics”),
    because I think they tell us far less about the works than we might think.”

    I can totally respect that point of view, and in many ways I agree — one of my favorite authors is Peter Hoeg who straddles any number of different classifications. But, unfortunately, those categorizations do exist; again, I really recommend reading Stephen King’s acceptance speech, linked above, or at least the last several paragraphs.

    “Why not assume that it’s the work that Ware thinks is best?”

    Well, I do assume that it is what he thinks is best; but in choosing what he thought best, it didn’t seem like he was looking too far afield from the kind of authors and stories he’s already associated with. And really, that’s perfectly fine and I’m glad that such compilations exist, but it obviously reflects a very particular and personal viewpoint.

  37. Point 1.
    There are loads of terrific artists, but very few of them are good writers (present company excepted, of course). Too many artists don’t have the skill or training to create anything but superficial stories — thus the deluge of auto-biographies and “me” characters.

    Artist-writer teams are glaringly absent in the indie world, so these creations don’t get the kind of specialization that brings out the best of both worlds. The few exceptional examples of great artist/writers we can point to are just that — few and exceptions.

    Publishers aren’t helping. They seem to have given up pairing creators because it’s less work, and the results show. Financially, one-creator is better; artistically it rarely is.

    Point 2.
    There should be a visually compelling reason for a story to be presented in comic book form. Too many indies tell graphically uninteresting tales that would be more suited to prose, except then no one would be interested in reading them. Then their peers complain that people who enjoy the flashy superhero imagery aren’t “sophisticated” enough to try something new. It sounds so much like sour grapes to the cape-camp because of the triteness of most indies that labor under the illusion of gravitas.

    If you want better comic book stories, get writers involved instead of expecting illustrators to be good in two very different artistic spheres. It’s really that easy.

  38. Great discussion. I could read this stuff all day. Growing up a traditional superhero comics fan, then also becoming more of an indy fan of comics in college I feel just as much a fan of both sides.
    This reminded me of how much I enjoyed the “Comics are not literature” panel in San Diego hosted by D. Wolk…because it puts it out there and forces people to discuss and debate. Great stuff.
    I’ve tried to make it my life’s work to always promote and not shun the medium – all sides of it – because it’s that important to me.

  39. “I think it’s a bit silly to expect it from a book called Best American Comics edited by Chris Ware. This is like seeing Fun Home on Wizard’s best list. I flipped through it and it looked like typical whiny white person hipster shit”

    A-MEN!!!
    The key words for me on the cover of that book were not ‘Best Comics’ but ‘Chris Ware’. The fundamental emotional dishonesty of his work means that his name serves as purchase-repellent for me. Someone who devotes as much craft and ability as he clearly has to create bullshit mopey depression posturing is not going to be someone who is likely to put together an anthology I will have any interest in. I’ll definitely be picking up next year’s edition though!
    Now PopGun Vol. 1 is something that I am veryveryvery excited about for this year.

  40. I actually agree that someone really different should edit this book next year. I still have doubts that McCay, Herriman, Schulz, Caniff, Barks, Herge, Tezuka, King, Kirby, Gould, Beck, Kurtzman, Sakai, Aragones, Smith, Barks, Stanley, Burden, Bagge, Cervantes, Trondheim, Sfar, Jason, Joyce, and Dostoyevsky will end up in 2008 though.

  41. K.C. says:
    “There should be a visually compelling reason for a story to be presented in comic book form. Too many indies tell graphically uninteresting tales that would be more suited to prose.”

    I ask:
    “Why?”

    No, really. Is this just a matter of K.C.’s personal tastes or is there some graven rule that such should be the case? If true, then can we apply the same rule to other media? Should there be a compelling kinetic reason that a story be told in movie theaters, since its generally acknowledge that “the book was better”? Should there be a compelling textual reason to tell a story in novel form, since a good story is usually immeasurably better when told orally by a talented storyteller? Should there be a compelling static reason to tell a superhero story in comic form, since quality animation is far more dynamic than comic books?

    I think the answer is no, there doesn’t need to be any such reason. A creator may use the form and medium with which he can most comfortably tell his story.

    If that means you’re Jason Lutes and you tell a story about an out-of-work magician through the medium of a comic book, despite the fact that your story isn’t really all that visually compelling, then awesome. If that means you’re Eric Shanower and you retell a millennia-old story about a foolish war, despite the fact that the story was already told millennia ago, then awesome. If that means you’re Craig Thompson and you want to tell a story mostly about yourself and how you found faith and love and then gave up love and faith, despite the fact that your story might be better suited to a novel or a haunting ballad, then awesome.

    To all the people who create things in the media they prefer, despite the fact that K.C. might think they’re in the wrong medium, I say: Awesome. Do it.

  42. jhonen vasquez does *not* get enough play in the comics journalism community, nor jim mahfood. both fun, silly, diffirent people who get overshadowed by superangst. superangst is the norm of the day, and anything less seems still to be ignored. its kind of ironic, comic still don’t REALLY get respect, depressing subjects do.

    alan moore, neil gaiman or grant morrison seem like good new editors.

    ware following pekar seems a bit much, as they both do similar comics, but i still think ware is a fantastic editor [McSweeney’s 13? Fabulous], but under the heading of ‘best comics’, its a thin selection.

    also, in response to some guy up there who said the cartoonists of today can’t write, you don’t need training to be a writer REALLY. learning [from a good teacher of course only] can’t hurt, but in the end, especially in a comic, its all about you. jack kirby was a fantastic storyteller with abysmal writing [‘how did you do it mr. miracle?!’ ‘teleportation’ ‘…really?… that seems easy…’] but they’re still amazing comics.

    chris ware doesn’t deserve so much ire. think of the first time you read his work and remember how amazed you were. he merely allowed the comics community build him up as a god, and now we turn around and go ‘heeeey, wait a second!’ The fact that he keeps writing the same story when in full length doesn’t help though.

    the key problem, as i mentioned, is how much the hoity toity media loves the angst and the political discourse, and its why good superhero writers tend to be shrugged off for the most part, even when they do thier own personal projects.

  43. oh man, i gotta tell yah, to the person who said pairings are better, there are more great independent visions that collaborations, and the fact that they don’t pair anymore people forcefully is GREAT, its a sign of respect towards the creator and letting them do what they want.

  44. I think Jeff Smith is a great cartoonist.

    And I think I’ll read Bone, The Best American Comics 2007, Scalped, 30 Days of Night: Return to Barrow and the latest issue of Green Lantern all over the same weekend, and life will be just plain dandy.

  45. Also, I generally see superhero fans, and not superhero creators hating indie comics, but man, the bile with which indie cartoonists hate superheroes is intense! But how can The Story of How Sad I Am compete with Superman fighting Bizarro? The biggest indie success story is arguably Bone, just judging from how adored it is right now by all audiences. And its sucess rose when it went into color. The lesson is, learn, do not hate.

    Stories which are made to resemble the domineering style in the indie culture of ‘look how sad we are’ is comparable to mainstream’s ‘look how EXTREME we are’. At first its cool, but if get the same thing fed to us again again, fatigue will set in, and the style will be exhausing.

    I’d also like to mention, it feels a tad silly telling Chris Ware what to do, and telling Brunetti to change his tune. When you, the powerful comics media, report on more fun comics, more fun comics will be noticed! Crumb would never be respected were it not for comics fans and reporters, and that is why he is so imitated now.

    I talked a lot. I gone now.

  46. “If that means you’re Jason Lutes and you tell a story about an out-of-work magician through the medium of a comic book, despite the fact that your story isn’t really all that visually compelling, then awesome. If that means you’re Eric Shanower and you retell a millennia-old story about a foolish war, despite the fact that the story was already told millennia ago, then awesome. If that means you’re Craig Thompson and you want to tell a story mostly about yourself and how you found faith and love and then gave up love and faith, despite the fact that your story might be better suited to a novel or a haunting ballad, then awesome.”

    Whats with the backhanded criticisms?

  47. Hey Matt, those weren’t meant to sound like back-handed criticisms. I genuinely love each of those works and think it would have been a shame if their respective creators asked himself before laying pen/brush to paper whether or not there was something like a “visually compelling reason” to record their particular stories in comic form.

    I think each of those creators ended up creating work that are both visually and narratively compelling despite the fact that their story doesn’t necessarily easily lend itself to being visually compelling. When I think visually compelling, I don’t immediately think of a retelling of my youthful fancies, no matter how heartfelt. And yet, Blankets is an amazing work and Thompson really does serve his story in such a way that I cannot honestly imagine it being better told in prose or poetry or theater or any other medium. The same go for countless other indie works that would fail K.C.’s criterion of the story told being first and foremost “visually compelling.”

  48. Maybe if they changed the title to

    BEST OF AMERICAN COMICS 2007, EDITED BY CHRIS WARE, BUT KEEP IN MIND IT’S JUST HIS OPINION, I MEAN CAN ANYONE OBJECTIVELY SAY WHAT THE “BEST” COMIC IS ANYWAY? SO TAKE IT WITH A GRAIN OF SALT, I GUESS”

    people would be less confused?

  49. This conversation reminds me just a little bit of the people at work who complain every year that movies like Are We Done Yet didn’t win the Oscar for best picture (and the Oscars isn’t even the best example since so often it DOES reward fairly middlebrow works). Yeah, it would be great to have an anthology of fun and accessible work for the masses but when I think of “best” I don’t think of “best middlebrow that appeals to the masses and features marketable characters” for the same reason I don’t buy the New Yorker and wonder why they don’t publish short stories by Stephen King or Danielle Steele.

  50. Heidi’s complaints are all based upon some normative idea of story that not only goes undefined, but is absolutely obscured by her citation of disparate, contradictory works and techniques as examples of good story.

    Somehow Aristotelian poetics, early-modern picaresque, Dostoevsky’s 19th century psychological realism, high Modernism, and Krazy & Ignatz cling together to constitute the category of good story, over against…well, what exactly? Another seemingly random assortment that includes autobiography, formal experimentation, Fort Thunder, C.F., Paper Rad, and presumably anything else that Heidi finds distasteful, boring, or difficult (C.F. is brushed aside on the basis of idiosyncratic handwriting…).

    The vagueness of Heidi’s argument (more like a collection of complaints) demonstrates the lack of intellectual rigor and attention to detail that so much comics “criticism” trades upon – particularly, but unfortunately not only, in an online forum such as this one. Only through generalizing conflations such as those employed by Heidi can one reduce an entire art form to polarizing binary categories, which then sinks the whole discourse to the dumb level of attacking and defending.

    Sweeping, provocative opinions need to be supported by analysis of detail in order to avoid coming off as mere gut reaction or the whims of taste.

    The Berlatsky v. Hodler argument was most certainly not about “superheroes vs. art comics,” but about this very problem, the problem of intellectually irresponsible writing about comics (Berlatsky) and the need for rigor and delight in detail (Hodler; just see his work on Steve Gerber in Comics Comics). To lift a phrase from Nabokov (who, incidentally, convincingly criticized Dostoevsky as a particularly bad storyteller), without a rigorous attention to details, general ideas remain worn passports allowing their bearers (and, in Heidi’s case, propagators) short cuts from one area of ignorance to another.

    Case in point: Heidi writes, “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.”

    Unless by “dead end” she is referring to the fact that the Fort itself was demolished by Feldco devlopers to build a parking lot for a grocery store – which I assume she is not – then she has no justification for this “authoritative” pronouncement. This statement is a weird non sequitur, not directly related to or supported by any of the arguments that precede it, and not backed up by any explanatory evidence once she makes it.

    Prefacing it as some kind of shocking revelation does not make it true. Furthermore, the palpable condescension in her tone inexplicably trivializes an exciting and vital, ephemeral and still relatively unknown situation of artistic community… a situation that was about a lot more than just the world of comics and the impoverished discourse that reigns therein.

  51. I love good comics, on matter the genre. I recommend Castle Waiting AND The Authority. point one: I do not know which stories in this volume were real or made up. The only memorable stories were the Fritz story and the Louisville Flood story. POINT TWO: Too Beland is a biographer (true Story Swear To God) who also writes decent superhero stories (web Of Romance). The issue where he chronicles his publishing his first issue is amazing. POINT THREE: where are the goddamned award anthologies?! Eisners? Harveys? And why aren’t the publishers printing their own Best Of collections? POINT FOUR: guest editors should alternate between indies, mainstream, and critics.

  52. The real problem with the article is its vagueness. Heidi starts off the essay with a legitimate premise – a critique of autobiographic (or quasi-autobiographic) comics – but falls into the trap of making her arguments overly broad. It’s impossible to categorize large swaths of independently produced comic books, that’s part of their appeal. Too many people forget that comics are a unique medium, and cannot be analogized with other forms of entertainment. The high/low/middle brow classifications don’t work. Stephen King’s criticism of the publishing industry is inapposite because the tastemakers in the comics industry don’t share the same values as those in the book industry, and the critics (to the extent they exist) don’t have the same influence. Although it’s cool for some when McSweeney’s or the NY Times Magazine anoint some creator as the future of comics, their viewpoint isn’t universally accepted (to the extent that it is in prose).

    I wouldn’t presume to know Heidi’s intentions with writing this piece, but I think that sometimes writers seduce themselves into writing pieces that are broader than initially intended. An article about a specific phenomena becomes a manifesto on an industry.

    All that said, I’m a little surprised at the intensity of the response, both here and on other sites. I think that there are far more sacred cows in this industry than any of us want to admit.

  53. Post of the year.

    Couldn’t agree more — thanks for finally SAYING it. I keep looking at these anthologies and rolling my eyes — if I read another autobio savant comic, I’m going to..well, you know. It is great stuff, but the clubhouse gets smaller and smaller. Anything from SOLO, Treehouse of Horror, and what about the work Batiuk has done this year? And where is Scott Pilgrim? Anthologies never please everybody — ever — but secretly narrowing the scope of “Best American Comics” to “Best American Angst-Driven Graphic Novel Excerpts BY Guys With Funky Glasses” is more advertising than truth.

    An editor (esp. a guest one) should have reign over what to pick, but there should also be a responsibility to the truth of the collection. Esp. if anyone is going to take this seriously as a college textbook. Black Hole is great stuff, of course — but when did it come out?

    I think you should edit your own anthology Heidi and preface it with this exact essay. Put me down for 30.

    BR

  54. I hope no one confuses the frequency of my responses yesterday as some sort of passionate defense. I mean, you can if you want, but you’d be wrong. It was Friday, I was bored, and I was slightly stunned by the sloppy ridiculousness and pandering qualities of the original essay.

    Hopefully, someone will take up the charge with actual specific points more to the point than 50 percent of the stories in Best American Comics 2007 are not as good as Bone (I would actually go 80 percent) and in way that is able to make a generational argument that doesn’t willfully ignore dozens of successful members of that generation.

    What I expect is we’ll get more high-fives and then Heidi will follow-up with some testimony from SPX’ers which is then used to buttress an as-yet-to-be-selected notion that is “was what I was really getting at.”

    I vote for Friday afternoon again!

  55. “Hopefully, someone will take up the charge with actual specific points more to the point than 50 percent of the stories in Best American Comics 2007 are not as good as Bone (I would actually go 80 percent) and in way that is able to make a generational argument that doesn’t willfully ignore dozens of successful members of that generation.

    80 percent? Bone is better than all of those stories. By far.

  56. “Couldn’t agree more — thanks for finally SAYING it.”

    This may be the first time you have heard it, but Heidi’s complaint has come up in one form or another every six months or so (or more) for the past 5 years online.

    “Anything from SOLO, Treehouse of Horror, and what about the work Batiuk has done this year? And where is Scott Pilgrim?”

    No. Apparently Ware doesn’t think these are as good as what he included. That’s all . . .

    “but secretly narrowing the scope of ”

    Secretly . . .!? Post the McSweenys issue he edited, how could any one think that Ware’s tastes are a secret . . . Maybe you mean this as a joke, but it still doesn’t make sense.

    “Best American Angst-Driven Graphic Novel Excerpts BY Guys With Funky Glasses”

    Take a look again, there’s a bunch of women in there.

    “responsibility to the truth of the collection.”

    I have no idea what this means . . . but ‘the truth of the collection’ is relative to the editor.

    “Esp. if anyone is going to take this seriously as a college textbook.”

    I haven’t heard this — Is that Ware’s claim? the claim of the series editor? or of the Best American series itself?

    Most lit collections that limit themselves to a year are not used as textbooks, which typically have a longer reach.

  57. Heidi, you did good!

    As I read through the comments, I notice how so many of the negative comments border on the “Silly Rabbit, Trix are for kids!” dismissal. “Silly Heidi, thinking is for menfolk!” Horseshit, I say.

    Spurgeon said:
    “I hope no one confuses the frequency of my responses yesterday as some sort of passionate defense. … , I was bored, …”

    As in, ‘I only responded because I was bored. She really didn’t say anything.’ I’m disappointed in you, Tom. You know better than this. Either list the faults you see and rebut them properly or just keep quiet.

    Stephen Hirsch said a bunch of words, but after the first paragraph, I gave up. Hirsch, if you want to write a diatribe suited for academia, feel free, but take it to Harvard or Yale. You multisyllabic words and self-reverential tone put me to sleep.

  58. Things I’ve learned from this thread…

    Extolling the virtues of creative prose fiction is pandering, despite some agreement from both ends of the comic readership that the lack of creative prose fiction is one of the things holding comics back from greater cultural relevance.

    A book of mostly eclectic works staking claim as representing the best of an entire medium (which is appparently a practice only the two true genres have the gall to do) must not be challenged in any way.

    Accurate or not, merely suggesting an inequity in the level of advocacy within comics criticism for so-called “midbrow” works versus the greater literary medium is a crime punishable by crucifiction via a gang of dead Russian writers.

    Curious.

  59. This post and replies posted in the comments make me wish that the comics industry as a whole was the size of a small puppy so it could be wrapped in a burlap potato sack and thrown off a tall bridge.

  60. In response to Alan Coil: apologies for any lack of clarity or readability on my part. I can see what you mean, and I will try to sum up my argument more concisely and simply here.

    You write that many of the negative comments on this post amounted to the dismissal “Silly Heidi, thinking is for menfolk!” Putting aside your unwarranted insinuation of sexism, my argument ran in precisely the opposite direction. Taking Heidi’s essay seriously, I requested a clearer definition of good story in order to know what exactly she was criticizing in the works she identifies as lacking. Autobio comics tell stories, formally experimental comics tell stories, C.F. comics tell stories, Fort Thunder comics tell stories, Paper Rad comics tell stories. They all do so in radically different ways. What exactly is it that they all, in common, lack? Without some evidence by way of detail, one can’t really argue with or understand Heidi’s essay, one can simply agree or disagree with her likes and dislikes. This leads to entrenched back-and-forth flame wars and ad hominem attacks rather than discussion of the actual work.

    I focused in particular on her unsupported, somewhat inexplicable claim that Fort Thunder was a “dead end.” Statements like that require supporting evidence, and she offered none.

    I hope this formulation of my argument is more readable.

    As an aside, I would like to note that diatribes, by definition, aren’t really suited for academia, and that one could hardly characterize my original comment as a diatribe, lacking as it was in the requisite abusiveness of tone (self-reverential, maybe, but never abusive).

    In response to Simon Jones, as another aside: I can only assume that your reference to “crucifiction [sic] via a gang of dead Russian writers” refers to my paraphrasing of Nabokov (it was Heidi herself, after all, who summoned Dostoevsky)… I would hardly characterize one or two writers as “a gang,” nor would I be too quick to associate Nabokov with Russia as anything more than a fascinating accident of birthplace. But your metaphor of moral justice with morbid reference to Jesus’ mode of execution is humorously, if not intentionally, spot-on in its allusiveness to the Russian literary tradition.

  61. You know, I think I prefer Bone to all of those works, too, but I think there’s about 80 pages in its class — the Huizenga, Burns, Barry, Tyler and a few others* — which doing some quick math comes out to about 20 percent.

    Hey, Heidi liked HALF THE BOOK more than Bone. What a snob!

    Of course, I have no idea why Bone was brought up, since Bone did not come out this year. This would be a much less bizarre argument if a work of its type that came out the eligible year had been used.

    Simon Jones, I’m either the worst teacher that ever lived or you’re a terrible student. I know it’s a bitch when people ask for non-ridiculous examples, but it doesn’t mean they’re saying you can’t argue something.

    *****

    BTW, here’s my poorly copy-edited take on Bone:

    http://www.comicsreporter.com/index.php/briefings/cr_reviews/1979/

    And here’s my take on 2006:

    http://www.comicsreporter.com/index.php/cr_top_50_2006/

    I’ll be revising those soon on Chris Ware’s orders as we work more closely together in our quest to destroy anything but our shared view of comics, so I thought I’d get them out there now.

    * wouldn’t a much better thread be just talking about how awesome Carol Tyler is? Can someone start that thread?

  62. Uh oh, don’t tell me you’re one of those guys who dissect jokes until they’re not funny anymore.

    As an aside to an aside… are you suggesting exile also divorces authors like Bunin and Nabokov from the Russian literary tradition?

  63. Heidi’s essay makes more sense to me as a list
    of potential future editors:
    Jeff Smith, Sergio Aragones, Stan Sakai: Smith has the most name brand
    recognition, which I guess is a factor. Might make for more stories and characters rather than a book of neuroleptics with special guest Groo.
    Sfar, Trondheim, Jason: Would be worth it for the introductory essay
    about being saddled with such a borderline insulting task
    of deciding what’s best yet strictly American. Not sure how the rules work:
    are these cartoonists ineligible despite publishing work here?
    Bagge, Burden: Bagge edited Weirdo. Seems like cartoonists doing
    wackier stuff get edged out of these books a lot. Johnny Ryan is another
    guy in this category, did the Vice comic issue with the Al Jaffee cover…
    The deadline for the next book was September, so I’m guessing
    they’ve probably already picked someone?
    I was also thinking that, like, The Best American Short Stories
    has a similar problem when one year it’s John Updike and the next
    it’s Joyce Carol Oates. And I’m imagining there’s also a post battle
    going on somewhere for the Best American Food Writing where
    they’re debating molecular cuisine vs. seasonal produce or something…

  64. I can only defend Heidi’s piece to this extent. She seems to be taking Ware & Co. to task for calling a tome The Best American Comics when it actually collects the best American comics OF A CERTAIN KIND, and I concur with that complaint. Maybe it should’ve been called Chris Ware Recommends instead.

    By the way, it also bugs me when people say/write the phrase “best comics” and proceed to list only the “best fantasy comics” or “best superhero comics” or whatever. I’m not saying Best Of volumes all have to be balanced, but a bit more precision in their titles might be a good idea.

  65. Hey there… Spurge just posted on my site that his comments have started going into the moderation queue here at The Beat, rather than appearing on the site. This seems a little odd to me, but might just be a glitch of WordPress rather than any specific desire to stifle ‘debate’ on the matter. So if any of you have posted to Tom recently and don’t see a response, that’s why, and it may be forthcoming once it gets out of the queue.

  66. Well said, Heidi. Frankly, that pretentious New York Times Magazine photo always creeped me out. I thought I escaped all that when I dropped out of the fine arts world…

  67. “alan moore, neil gaiman or grant morrison seem like good new editors.”

    Of these three, I’d tap Morrison. He’d make some interesting choices, I think (as did Ware).

    And I think they should just go with [Editor’s name] Presents for the title and bypass the whole Best Of quagmire altogether.

  68. No conspiracy — if you post more than a single link in a comment, it goes into moderation. I check it regularly but I’ve been on the road for a few hours — I’ve salvaged Tom’s post, above.

  69. Tom Spurgeon – I’m not so much suggesting an end to the debate (nor was I responding to your posts directly), as I am left scratching my head by the ferociousness of some of the replies to what is an innocuous trespass at best. I don’t even necessarily agree with the original op ed… people are spending big money to bring those neglected/non-existent mainstream comics to the big screen, so obviously someone out there gives a hoot about them, and that sort of exposure trumps anything that could be gained in recognition from the “comics literati.” (Is that a card-carrying club, or is there some kind of secret hand shake?) Yet the seemingly territorial nature of some respondents end up making a better case for the bigger picture Heidi was perhaps trying to paint, at least to this outsider: Comics, and the comics community, might not *seem* very welcoming to the uninitiated. (But I’ll readily say that pinning that on any particular book or group of artists is very unfair.)

    So this piece is a bit of cheerleading for Heidi’s “middle ground” of comics. No more, no less, and to me, really no different from publishing an anthology chest-thumpingly named “The Best American Comics.” This is something everyone’s guilty of… team spandex, team comix, team manga, whatever. Speaking as a “civilian” (or at the very least, someone who has no particular vested interest in either side of the qualitative argument… mainstream is not my thing, you know), this thread makes the comics community seems like a den of lions where an accidental toe step is dealt with an aneurysm-inducing 10-paragraph admonishment. Frankly, I’m afraid of team comix. Coming from a pornographer, that’s just all kinds of wrong.

  70. Aww, crud. Was that reply #100? Thanks for making me guilty of the very thing I loath. I’m going to sulk in the corner now with some auto-bio comics. Don’t mind me…

  71. Simon, your points are well taken.

    But I don’t totally agree that Heidi’s essay is quite as innocuous as you claim. The basic problem is that she takes some defensible criticisms of one very particular anthology, and then for some reason goes on and uses them to paint an inaccurate, negative picture of an entire generation of cartoonists and the state of the art form.

    But the bigger problem, and one you may not be familiar with as a self-professed outsider, is that these kinds of reductive, generalizing critiques pop up way too often in writing about comics (perhaps especially here at PW), as if comics criticism cannot function without an artificial sense of crisis. The main point of my previous two posts was that this is the kind of provocative writing that reinforces those very stupid, entrenched divisions that you correctly identified.

    There are lots of people who are not on a team, people who just love comics, and Heidi certainly seems like one of them. That’s why I think her essay should be taken to task for slipping into the trap of the sweeping, provocative, inaccurate generalization. I don’t think it’s an overreaction to call for more rigorous and thoughtful criticism in a post like this, which pretends to diagnose an entire art form… I admit this may be asking too much of a blog, but this isn’t any old curmudgeon’s blog, and Tom Spurgeon seems to be able to manage it pretty well over at the Comics Reporter, and Tim Hodler (albeit more infrequently) at Comics Comics…

    By reacting to the book the way she does, Heidi implies that it’s canonical and gives it some authority that it doesn’t and shouldn’t have. I see comics as an art form refreshingly free of any rigid canon, and would like to see it remain that way.

    Anyways I wrote too much again, hope it doesn’t induce an aneurysm.

    Regarding the irrelevant Russian literature discussion, I would say that writers such as Bunin, Solzhenitsyn, or Tertz/Sinyavsky are most certainly Russians (in exile), whereas Nabokov is a cultural polyglot as well as a literal one, a true cosmopolitan – though I was certainly hyperbolic in saying he was Russian by birthplace alone.

  72. Why is everyone always talking about how people refuse to “name names” in these arguments? Isn’t it obvious that when people are dissing these depressing self-obsessed autobiographical art comics with “no story” what they mean is Joe Matt comics?

  73. First: sure, Jeff Smith is a swell cartoonist. But was his Captain Marvel comic among the BEST COMICS of the previous year (I’m inclined to say “no”, since I realize that I forgot to read the last issue)? And, even if so, has no-one taken into account the fact that neither DC or Marvel particularly like to license their product to other publishers? That factor takes a lot of the proposed candidates off the board. As does the fact that a lot of the names being thrown around didn’t actually publish during the year in question. It seems like a lot of folks aren’t really thinking about the publishing realities involved in the project in question.

  74. “Can anyone here tell a story.”

    Some cartoonists DECIDE to create comics that are not traditional narratives. If a cartoonist is doing something less narrative than you would like, it makes no sense to criticize her ability to tell a story, when she has made it clear by her work that she is doing something different.

  75. I have read your blog for years now, and I am now compelled to respond for the first time. I am a 34 year old attorney, who has fought every angst-ridden fight an evolving nerd can fight. I also have read more than enough about those same battles.

    I am tired of bleak, depressing stories about the travails of geeks — no matter which nuance of geek it is you’re pursuing. Emo or gamer or neo-goth, I don’t care.

    Newsflash to Indie creators — you don’t have to be dreary, you don’t have to be autobiographical, you don’t have to have to limit the range of your stories to your smug, pseudo-intellectual worlds, where you are so smart, and the world is so dumb.

    You’re better than that. If not, then you have no business in the industry.

    How about this? Tell me something I don’t know. Tell a story. Smile.

    And don’t make me go to the mainstream rack for the only stories that are (at least sometimes) uplifting and entertaining.

    Get over yourselves. Appreciate Bone.

    Bravo Heidi.

  76. This response is from way up in the pile.

    What I meant was that an anthology — in its strictest sense — is meant to be a representative collection, especially when it is attached to a specific year. Yes, the editor does and should have final choice, but (as I say) not at the risk of completely misrepresenting the year in question. When I heard a few years ago that they were going to do a
    Best American Comics” it excited me because here was a text I could use in school (I’m a teacher), much as a I use “Best American Poetry” or “Best American Short Stories.” But these anthologies claim and define comics ONLY as independent and self-referential. This is ok, and is great if that’s the class you wanted it for — but that’s not “Best American Comics.” And it makes them all — for all their independence — strikingly the same. It’s perhaps a small point yes, but an important one, I think.

    Brad

  77. “What I meant was that an anthology — in its strictest sense — is meant to be a representative collection, especially when it is attached to a specific year.”

    Nowhere does it say that it represents all of the work published in that year. Does best American Short Stories 2007 have to have a western, a romance, a slice of life? The main editor picks an issue editor because of that person’s knowledege; this issue represents Ware’s tastes – there is no other mandate.

  78. “But is it really BETTER than Sergio Aragones? Isn’t it maybe AS good?”

    People get so worked up over the word “Best” –

    When some Authority – the publisher and the editor – do not validate the readers’ preferences they take offense. Just pretend the book is titled Chris Ware’s Best American Comics 2007, and there you go.

  79. “I have read your blog for years now, and I am now compelled to respond for the first time. I am a 34 year old attorney, who has fought every angst-ridden fight an evolving nerd can fight. I also have read more than enough about those same battles.

    I am tired of bleak, depressing stories about the travails of geeks — no matter which nuance of geek it is you’re pursuing. Emo or gamer or neo-goth, I don’t care.

    Newsflash to Indie creators — you don’t have to be dreary, you don’t have to be autobiographical, you don’t have to have to limit the range of your stories to your smug, pseudo-intellectual worlds, where you are so smart, and the world is so dumb.

    You’re better than that. If not, then you have no business in the industry.

    How about this? Tell me something I don’t know. Tell a story. Smile.

    And don’t make me go to the mainstream rack for the only stories that are (at least sometimes) uplifting and entertaining.

    Get over yourselves. Appreciate Bone.”

    All of this indicates a very surface reading of “indy comics” – reducing them to angsty-autobio, when the collection goes far beyond that. If these comics were the evidence for an argument you are making, I am not sure that your side would win.

  80. You mean comics like,
    ‘Good bye chunky rice’
    ‘Superfuckers’
    ‘worn tuff elbow’
    ‘Glen Ganges’
    ‘Cave in’
    ‘ice haven’
    To name a few…

  81. So is there a “middle ground” that’s getting squeezed out by two extremes of narrative, or not?

    BONE might represent one success story of this hypothetical “middle.” However, BONE’s song has been sung.

    Several manga-series can fairly be deemed a success. But how much of that validation spills over to positively affect the works of “first-run” creators in the American marketplace?

  82. Is it the lack of desire to publish more Trondheim or Tardi over here due to the socalled indy audience not wanting to read them, or because there’s not enough of the socalled mainstream audience willing to read them? The obvious answer to that question demonstrates a crucial problem with the above essay.

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