Monday, May 14, 2012

In Response to NPR and Their Story on "Graphic Novels"

Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi wrote a novel titled A Shore Thing.  Say what you will about the art, the craft of her novel, the story, the cover, the state of literature, humanity, etc. etc., one thing no one debates is what to call it.  Her creation is without question a novel.  A good novel?  Probably not.  But, it will be shelved in the fiction section of your local bookstores somewhere near Chuck Palahniuk and Thomas Pynchon.  As much as it would be an insult to compare her novel to, say, Gravity's Rainbow or The Crying of Lot 149, no one can deny that Snooki created a story using fictional characters and fictional situations (sort of), and presented that story using words that made sentences, sentences that made paragraphs, paragraphs that made chapters, and so on.  It might not be the same quality as other novels, but it is still a novel.

Glasses = Author (photo: Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images) 

Similar comparisons can be made in other forms of art.  Regardless of whether it's hung in a gallery or stored in a box in the basement, a photograph is called a photograph.  Paint on canvas is always called a painting.  Moving pictures are always films.  The terms - photograph, film, painting - are divorced from the content and are concerned with the means of communication.  

Photo by Walker Evans of a Depression Era family (Alabama, 1936)
Photo by me of my dog (2008)

Then we come to comics.  Or are they graphic novels?  Or comix?  Sequential art, art comics, independent comics, mainstream comics, superhero comics, and so on and so on.  Comics, as a form, suffers from a proliferation of labels.  Unlike the difference between, say a photograph and a painting which one could claim are both branches of a visually representative medium, the different comic labels separate and divide the medium not by its use of materials or means of information conveyance; these different labels divide the medium hierarchically by content.  There is good, edgy, interesting content (graphic novels, comix, art comics, independant comics) and then there is vapid, mass-produced, flat content (comics, mainstream comics, superhero comics).  One is good, adult art, and the other is cheap, disposable trash.  

This divide within comics comes both from outside and within the comic industry.  Bookstores, media coverage, and comic critics all seem to be keenly interested in separating and labeling the good from the crap.  NPR recently had a story about Daniel Clowes and his art exhibit in the Oakland Museum of California.  The story, titled "The Serious Comic Art of Daniel Clowes", is both telling and problematic.  

While the title is a cute pun on the less-than-funny nature of Clowes work (which is fabulous, by the by; I really...REALLY...loved Caricatures and Ghost World), it seems to suggest that "comics" as a medium seldom create serious content.  The question here, then, is what is serious content?  Clowes work is often humorous, so comedy is not what separates serious from not serious.  The article is keen to draw attention to the dark and sometimes unlikable characters in Clowes work, calling them "unmotivated and cranky" people who don't "like to play by the rules," or as Clowes himself says in the associated interview: " my characters are like the worst customers I could imagine".  

Ghost World and other Clowes books use these characters to "skewer[...] everything, from televangelists to fashionistas."  Through these characters and their skewed, cranky outlooks on life, Clowes claims that a truth about humanity becomes apparent.  He says of Wilson, more specifically: "[He] really just wants to connect with people by being his exact true self, which is something none of us ever do, and he's not interested in changing himself to connect with people, which is what all of us do do. It made him seem much more noble when I figured that out about him."  Again, Clowes is right about his work.  The dark, sometimes horrible characters in his books do help shed light on some of the more materialistic and inauthentic parts of ourselves.  

My problem, here, is not with Clowes' work (or even his assessment of his own agendas), or the deserved space in an Art Museum (the article claims the exhibit will be coming through Chicago this summer when I return home; I will be one of the first in line to get tickets); my problem is that all of what NPR is describing here reminds me of someone else.  Chris Ware?  Certainly.  Robert Crumb?  Definitely.  Jessica Abel, Matt Madden, Jason Lutes, Peter Bagge, Posy Simmonds, Anders Nilsen: yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and yes.  

Also: Deadpool.  
Awesome AND Canadian: a possible paradox.
It's not as far-fetched as it seems: Deadpool is a cranky, unlikable, mouthy mercenary (by definition a loner) who has trouble fitting in society.  Deadpool is tricky because he is not a "hero" in the sense that he does good deeds for the good of mankind (see: Captain America), but he seems to have some sort of moral compass.  It just points to a different North than most other people's compasses.  Unlike other anti-heroes in the Marvel Universe, like Wolverine, Hulk or Punisher, Deadpool doesn't seem to suffer from long brooding periods where we struggles with his past.  He is true to his "exact self" and is uninterested in "changing himself to be with other people."  He is, in short, Wilson.  But in tights and shooting people for money.  And he can't die (or at least not easily).  

Batman, Rorschach, Swamp Thing, Hulk, most of the X-Men: these are all characters that don't bend to the will of others and sit on the fringes of society.   Like Deadpool, these characters wear tights (or with Swamp Thing, plants; and Hulk, tattered pants) and spend more of their time fighting than walking around record shops and vintage clothing stores.  Their agendas, though, are the same as Clowes' characters, both as individuals and as larger metaphors: they are designed to show the reader that sometimes the way things are is not the way things should be.  The superheroes just make that point with their fists.  

Some critics will claim that the slick, glossy superhero/mainstream franchised comics aren't as authentic as the creator-owned books (Douglas Wolk stops just short of saying exactly that in Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean).  The smaller houses like Drawn & Quarterly or Fantagraphics give more control and agency to their authors and artists, restricting them less with editorial constraints and lacking any "house style".  Others will claim that the art is less stylized and more authentic to the artist's vision - not run through the editorial staff to create a certain look. No one can argue that the royalty schemes by smaller-houses certainly seems to benefit the authors and artists more than the shady deals that have marred the larger publishers (see, the controversy surrounding Before Watchmen).  The other claims, though, are more dubious.    

It's true that Marvel and DC have a certain "look" and a certain "type" of story they like to publish, and usually that is anatomically distorted men and women with superpowers (or cool weapons) debating with punches and kicks. It is also true that Marvel and DC hire a stock of editors to ensure that these stories meet retain continuity and the standard established by previous authors and artists, which could be seen as restrictive.  If I wanted to write a story where Superman lost his powers, decided to become a farmer, and fixed and traded antique cars in his spare time (Superman: The Farmer Mechanic), DC would reject it out-of-hand, regardless of how good that story is.  This is because they have a product they want to continue to sell, and any adjustments made to that product need to be done with attention paid to the future.  It would be like if I walked into Hersey and wanted to change the formula of the candy bar to feature nougat; they would reject that idea immediately.  No one wants to open a Hersey bar and find something that is not Hersey, much like no one wants to open Superman and find he is suddenly and totally vincible.  DC and Marvel, like Hersey, are striving for consistency.  However, if I suggest a new bar, Hersey might listen, in the same way that DC and Marvel have tried out new characters in their own Universe (this is even more true with publishing off-shoots like Vertigo and Wildstorm).  

You could argue, then, that you get the same blandness from Marvel and DC that comes from fast food and processed goods, and comparatively, smaller publishers are like Mom-and-Pop bakeries.  True: smaller houses tend to have a more rapidly changing stock, and more freedom to experiment with new flavors.  The smaller houses make their money not from long running characters but from authors and artists.  Drawn & Quarterly is not tied to Berlin as a recurring story line; they are tied to Jason Lutes.  But smaller houses also have smaller consumer bases with more easily manageable expectations.  I have seen some really incredible cupcakes out of some small bakeries.  And sometimes, that is really good.  But sometimes, I want a Little Debbie.  Still, though, both Little Debbie, and smaller bakeries (like Bellaria Cookies out of Plano, TX) call their confectioneries by the same name, be it cookies or cupcakes.

And in reality, Drawn & Quarterly, :01 Second, Fantagraphics and other smaller publishers have a certain "look" or "style" they are going for, what one might call a consistent "house style" - the much-maligned term for the publishing standards of DC and Marvel.  True, what the smaller houses tend to publish tends to be more varied than Marvel and DC, but it is not infinitely expansive.  If I had an episodic book about a dude that could fly, and a really slick art work featuring muscled men and women in spandex, none of the above publishers would be quick to take it unless it was heavily satirical or the art was heavily caricatured (see Death Ray by Clowes, for example).  That sort of story would be better suited at a publisher interested in those sorts of stories.  Just like a brooding, introspective book is better suited for the above-listed publishers.  This idea that Marvel and DC are stifling creativity because they only publish superhero stories is a little unfair.  It's like getting mad that McDonalds doesn't carry steak on the menu.  It never suggested that it did.  Or that it wants to.  

I might argue, though, that Marvel and DC, within their chosen focus, are much more experimental than the smaller houses, and it is their size and volume of publication that can allow for this.  At their core, even the  most idealistic publishers have to turn a profit.  No matter what type of story and art the publisher wants to push, it has to sell in order for that business to be viable, and to claim that Drawn & Quarterly are any less of a business than Marvel or DC is a faulty comparison.  In fact, because smaller houses must sell what they have, with little room for returned product, they can only publish what they feel reasonably sure will sell.  DC and Marvel will sometimes (though, not all that often) give chances to books or characters.  Watchmen, for example, or Marvel's Alias, are both experimental titles (Alias even has a different style of art than Marvel usually will publish) that did well and pushed the limits of what a superhero book could do.  

I don't want to completely blur the distinction, though.  Clowes work has a different agenda and approach towards his narrative than Deadpool, in the same way that Pynchon and Raymond Chandler had different approaches to the novel.  But what I want to do is raise this question: why label them differently?  Why call Clowes work a graphic novel, an alternative comic or part of the comix movement, and call Deadpool a comic or a mainstream comic?  No other medium has different labels based on the content or publisher, so why is it that comics feel it necessary to divide  the form (sometimes divide themselves) based claims about content?

This, I feel, is the biggest problem facing comic criticism.  Having media labels that are divorced from content is essential for the criticism of an art form.  So many books have to wade into the debate over what to call the artifact at the center of the study before any salient points can be made.  It's a debate that will never have a winner.

The only way forward, I feel, is to agree on a term and label the entire medium in that way.  There is no perfect answer here, and each camp will argue vociferously for their favorite, but I intrepidly suggest that we call them all comics (now defining comics is a debate for another time...just go with me here).

It's not a perfect fit, and it feels wrong to suggest the work of people like Clowes, Ware (especially Ware), or even Batman is in anyway comic.  But, I would argue that a lot of labels have overcome the initial denotations and evolved with new, better fitting connotations.  Romantic poetry, for one, is not always about the love felt for another person (The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner here being the best example...though there is a wedding in that bleak, bleak poem).  Sir Philip Sidney's prose romance Arcadia does feature romance in it, but it does more than just explore the feelings between a deluded man and the fiction of a woman he imagines (it is also a densely wrought political statement, and there is a lion fight, I think).  It is true that a lot of the original comic strips in newspapers were funny, but the humor in Hogan's Alley was sometimes quite cutting, and certainly not comic in nature.  Similarly, the term comic can become any work that used framed images and words arranged with purpose on the page to convey information regardless of the content of that information.

I shy away from graphic novel for a few reasons: 
1) The connection to the novel - comics aren't prose novels.  They use a completely different set of communicative signs, convey information differently (though, as I argue in my thesis, not as differently as one might think), but most importantly encode information differently.  The only connection between comics and novels is the narrative aspect of the medium.  It would be quite restrictive to claim that all comics tell stories (see: Abstract Comics edited by Andrei Molitiu and published by Drawn & Quarterly).  But also, films are not called moving-image novels, nor are concept albums called musical novels.  Or plays called staged novels.  Or ballet called dancing novels...

2) It does not allow for comics to be their own medium - The connection to the novel will always lead to a comparison with the novel, which is a well-established and critically acceptable medium.  This will mean that comics are never seen as their own medium - their own art form, really - but rather the bastard off-shoot of the more grown up novel.  It will be impossible for comics to ever achieve any recognition (not to say anything about that horrible legitimacy argument) in the shadow of the novel, which is especially problematic since the two operate so differently.

3) Graphic novel, as a term, has a history built on division - Comics have been published for a long-time, and in the battle for legitimacy, a lengthy history never hurts.  Depending on how liberal you want to be, things like comics have existed since Hogarth in the 18th century, or tapestries since...well...people made tapestries.  More conservative critics generally settle on Rudolph Töpffer as the first to publish a comic, though the Swiss called it something else, in the early 19th century.  There is a history extending from Töpffer through European and US newspaper comics to the comicbook (both short-form magazines and book-length works).  In contrast, the term Graphic Novel has been kicked around since sometime in the 1970s when, as rumor has it, Will Eisner wanted to separate A Contract with God from his better known Spirit comic.  This would suggest that those works called graphic novels are separate from the history of comics, which is patently untrue.  No matter how different Clowes looks and feels from Deadpool, the two can both trace their history back to Töpffer.  
Töpffer doing his best Neil Gaiman impersonation

4) Graphic novels suggest not only artistic merit, but also length - Some of the most interesting comics not featuring superheroes are really short.  Anders Nilsen's Big Questions comic, an existential work examining what it is to be a person, was an annually published short piece.  It was later collected and published in a MASSIVE brick of a book (which is quite good, though it took a lot for me to get it home from Comic Con last year), but it would be inauthentic to claim that these short pieces published on fairly flimsy card-stock, or the massive collection, qualify as a novel.  There is a lack of cohesion to the collection that is necessary for anything to be novel-like.  Likewise,collections of contained story arcs from DC and Marvel would hardly be like the novel, which has a beginning and an end which any book in DC and Marvel lacks.  These collected volumes would be more akin to excerpts (though I shudder to imagine what a complete collected Spider-Man novel would look like...probably something like Garth Marenghi's collected novels...which I can't find a clip of because it's a really obscure reference, but find Man to Man with Dean Learner episode's funny).

More than anything, I find the term graphic novel to be problematic because it does to itself what other media has done to the comic medium (including vaunted titles like Maus and Persepolis): it devalues a form based on outward appearances.  Comics are just starting to be comfortable on the shelf next to other "great" works of literature and art, it would be a shame to celebrate some while marginalizing others.  

In short, comic criticism needs to stop bickering in these fruitless hierarchical debates over labels.  I find that comics is the best as it is most attached to history, least attached to divisive connotations, and the most flexible term available.  There are lots of interesting comics that push the boundaries and make the reader think; some render life in a more brooding, starkly realist fashion (like Daniel Clowes), others like to give the reader an escapist fantasy where the heroes can leap tall buildings in a single bound (like Deadpool).  The two are really just opposite ends of the same spectrum.

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