If you read only one think piece on comics by a great cartoonist today, you should read The Literaries by Eddie Campbell. The piece spins off of the current discussion on the place of EC comics which I mentioned the other day. Campbell’s response is specifically to Ng Suat Tong’s declaration that EC comics were mostly well-drawn pulp.
Campbell’s essay takes on the idea that the only good comics are ones judged as story with literary appeal and he comes back with a rousing defense of the image Indeed, it’s hard not to want to jump up and down with joy at the above Kirby image.
Comics have had different kinds of critics at different times. I recall an earlier phase, in which the French critic Maurice Horn (I think it was he) took pains to compare comics (he was writing about Tarzan and Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon) to eighteenth-century opera. In studying opera, in this theory, it is not wise to attend too critically to the story material, with all its pleasant pastoral business with the shepherds and the nymphs. Our attention is more fruitfully applied to the dramatic use of the music, and to the beauties that the attentive ear can find there. Note here that if you isolate the music it does not cease to be dramatic-narrative music. It remains quite different in form and purpose from the more abstract music of an instrumental sonata. Applying the same principle to comics, the art is to be found in the story the cartoonist tells in his graphic strokes, his deployment of the whole panoply of cartoon effects and ways of seeing and representing. In the work of an exceptional artist there can be a whole other story happening.
I found Campbell’s essay quite rousing, myself, arguing as it does that comics are comics and shouldn’t be judged by the criteria of other mediums. That doesn’t mean that EC comics are the equivalents of Milton and Velasquez—but it is hard not to fall in love on some level with the pulp beauty of them. The comments to the piece get more into the art vs story argument, but I don’t think there really is an argument here. I don’t want to be in an artform where this Kirby page isn’t at least the equivalent of a sonnet.
Campbell (From Hell, Alec) has long been quite the writer and scholar. For a long time had a much missed blog full of great observations, but has hasn’t posted there in nearly a year. There was also Eddie Campbell’s Egomania which started out to be a history of humor, but the laughter died after a few issues. Hoefully he’ll get back to writing at some point and cartooning at another.
Heidi MacDonald is the founder and editor in chief of The Beat. In the past, she worked for Disney, DC Comics, Fox and Publishers Weekly. She can be heard regularly on the More To Come Podcast. She likes coffee, cats and noble struggle.