Comics defenders assemble

200610300039There is he. Tony Long. The enemy. The Wired staffer’s modest proposal that AMERICAN BORN CHINESE wasn’t good enough for a National Book Award nomination has spurred defenses of comics far and wide. Here’s First Second’s own Mark Siegel, the publisher of the collected AMERICAN BORN CHINESE

Rather than taking to task each assertion, or the tone of the missive, let’s step back a minute: isn’t it finally time the debate over the standing of the graphic novel within modern literature be left behind? Will it finally elevate from an obsession over the formal aspects of comics vs. prose — and move into substance, storytelling, character, plot, voice, these much more interesting depths?

Obsession over the form overlooks the fact it’s A VEHICLE, and while there are some differences in the crafts of novel and graphic novel creation, fundamentally it’s mostly about STORY, the work of AUTHORS, and in the best cases, a discerning reader’s reading experience. (This is why I have no interest in being a champion of the Graphic Novel form per se, even though I sound like one on many of my talks to booksellers and librarians — but no, I champion creators, voices, talent that moves and touches me, creators who speak a universal storytelling tongue, and in the case of First Second, they happen to be working in this chosen medium.)


But Siegel need not have worried. Here’s The Orlando Sentinel’s Rebecca Swain Vadnie:



I wonder if Long knew to what degree graphic and comics fans are dedicated to their favorite style. Let’s just say I’m glad I’m not on his server today, because the blogosphere is hoppin’ on this one.

If the judging panel felt Yang’s work deserved to be included, then it should be. It’s a wonderful recognition of the fact that stories can be told in a number of ways The classic image of the whiz-bang superhero comics of the 1950s has given way to graphic novels that push the boundaries of art and storytelling — much like the novel progressed from a form considered pulpy entertainment at best to a respected literary form (okay, 99.5% respected — I’m sure there are die hard poetry fans out there who would die before reading prose).


Here’s Alexander G. Rubio at Bits of News who points out Long’s views on other matters:

There are those, yours truly among them, who pride themselves on being something of a stick in the mud. Not everything new is necessarily progress. And some things that lasted for a long time, did so for a reason.

But then again, you have those who are so set in their ways and preconceptions that everything new is a change for the worse, and any change for the worse must be caused by something new.

Wired’s Tony Long seems to march under this banner. Back in February he posited that new technology, such as the internet, email and mobile phones, was to blame for the decay of young people’s language skills.

Now the culprit for lowering standards is an old stand-by, the comic book.


For once, progress seems to be on our side. Galley Cat reported on the diss and offered a survey with the question “Should graphic novels be eligible for real literature prizes?” So far, we’re winning, with 78% of the vote.

We could go on and on here. In some ways it’s almost nice that Long’s old school attack on comics came along because it served as such a good rallying point. And yes, it’s nice that everyone has gathered together to fight the greater foe.

Based on our reading, however, it would seem that in the online world, at least, comics are winning handily. When we started the original Beat four years ago, we were focused on media stories which seemed to show acceptance for comics as cool. Four years is a millennium in the media and now as we make our nightly trawl, stories like this from The Winnipeg Free Press are the norm, so commonplace as to hardly bear repeating:

GRAPHIC novels have made significant inroads into mainstream popularity, and the proof may be in the publication of The Best American Comics (Houghton Mifflin, $30), the inaugural comics edition of the Best American series.

Since 1915, Best American has published short fiction such as The Best American Mysteries, The Best American Sports Writing and The Best American Short Stories.

The first — and long overdue — comics edition, edited by Harvey Pekar (American Splendor), features a who’s who of the very best artists, including Jamie Hernandez, Gilbert Shelton (the return of Wonder Wart-Hog!), Chris Ware and Kim Deitch, in addition to notable newcomers.


Or this from the Contra Costa Times , proudly jumping on the bandwagon:

A New York cartoonist battles breast cancer.

A disillusioned Iranian man loses his passion for living.

A special commission report details the before, during and after of 9/11.

A Chinese-American boy grapples with racism, then exposes his own cultural shame.

Welcome to the vibrant world of the graphic novel, a destination where no subject — happy, tragic or a combination of both — is off-limits. Long existing in the American cultural shadows, the graphic novel has dramatically emerged as a powerful literary force.

Its influence continues to explode throughout our pop culture, from the movies we watch (“V for Vendetta,” “A History of Violence”) to the critical raves it receives (from the likes of the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly).

Yet many readers remain graphic novel virgins. That’s where this new monthly column, Graphics Detail, aims to come in handy.


While it’s heartening to see everyone leaping to our defense—where were you when Estes Kefauver was around?—it’s enlightening to return to Siegel’s comments. Those of us “inside the Beltway” have our own little axes to grind, and often can’t see the forest for the trees. But is it really necessary to defend an entire medium en masse? Or is that just another reflexive sign of comicdom’s own crippling lack of self-esteem? Isn’t it a sign of strength, as Siegel suggests, to concentrate on the real statements being made instead of getting mired in the “Comics aren’t just for kids?” argument?

It’s a bright, crisp Monday here at Stately Beat Manor. Every morning when we awaken, it’s instructive to see what Dirk and Tom have gleaned from the same raw material more or less. While Dirk goes for exhaustive detail (although he even he can no longer really keep up with the vast and nebulous comics blogosphere), Tom and The Beat are focused more on our own particular obsessions and interests. It’s a bit amusing that Tom has doubled his linking since Dirk returned, including more of the “not comics” kind of ephemera that we traffick in. While there’s some healthy competition among all three bloggers, it’s more a personal thing — no one person can cover everything going on anymore, and anyone with an interest in the bullet points of comics probably hits all three sites.

Which is all a long winded way of saying that The Beat‘s is less and less interested in those “Wow comics are cool!” stories. We all know that. Time to move on. While we find it thrilling that Gerard Butler was initially worried about meeting Frank Miller —although his worries eased when they ended up partying together—actors in movies based on graphic novels praising the creators of those graphic novels isn’t very newsworthy anymore. We’re more interested in the more subtle effects of graphic novel culture’s inroads and what that means for you and me and our bottom line. “They hate us!” is one of the most ironic categories of all — the truth is, you really need to look under a lot of rocks to find people brave enough to diss comics as a medium publicly.

Don’t misunderstand: a new Kefauver/Werthem duo could be along any minute to explain why it is an imminent threat to the nation that yaoi manga are being aimed at 13-year-olds. Then we will all need to rally around the flag. The current Missouri library brouhaha is a good example of this, but the overwhelming support for “our side” is hardly surprising. Constant vigilance is the price of freedom, and we certainly do need to keep our symbolic finger in the wind to see if it changes, but we also need to understand the terrain.

As goofy as it sometimes seems to see Frank Miller lauded on TV, it’s only natural given his influence–for better or worse–on many aspects of pop culture. Miller is Hunter S. Thompson. Stan Lee is Ray Bradbury. From where we sit, the best thing we can do in our new world order is get back to the basics of making stories that are worthy to be included in the pantheon. For all of our collective low self-esteem, the mainstream’s attitude is increasingly, “It’s a comic so it must be cool!” We know better than that. In the coming weeks and months The Beat, like so many others, will be adapting and changing both our strategy AND our tactics to deal with the new threats from both within and without. Higher criticism. That’s where it’s at, baby.

Comments

  1. I’m not so sure that judges for a contest dominated by prose books will treat anything other than prose books fairly.

  2. Jimmie Robinson says:

    Well said, and well thought out piece, Heidi. To the defenses, countrymen!

  3. I think that this is great. Moving the debate about comix into the greater public sphere is fantastic. Tony Long may be a bit of a freak… but he actually has done the artform a favor by criticizing it in print. His views are arcane and addled but he’s added some fuel to the bonfire that continues to grow. This debate will grow until they name the NBA winner and long after that, too. This is just the beginning. Thank you, Tony Long!

  4. An excellent manifesto, full of points well taken.

  5. As someone on the ENGINE once said to me in a different context:

    Wordy MacWord.

    I am also developing a theory about how the blossoming of the graphic story form in both content and general acceptance, and the blossoming of the blogosphere, are mutually reinforcing. But I don’t have a thought-out analysis and right now I need to go back to drawing.

  6. Um. I don’t know if I would compare Frank Miller to Hunter S. Thompson… that’s kind of specious, isn’t it? Especially since one was one of the most gifted writers of the second half of the twentieth century, and the other, um, made some halfway decent Daredevil comics?

  7. The Beat says:

    Thompson is of course a hugely influential figure. But like it or not, so is Miller.

  8. I’m still a bit dubious over this whole “competition” thing. Most of the people I know read all three mentioned blogs, plus the Newsarama blog and a few favorites on top of that. It’s not like we’re divvying up an audience that only goes to one source for their comics news, or anything.

  9. I just plain don’t like Miller, I guess. Took me a while to figure this out, but eventually I came to the conclusion that all the work of his everyone else liked, I disliked. Grotesque politics are a turn-off for me, as are bad history and poor art. It is perhaps inevitable that he is an influence, but I guess that’s a better commentary on the state of this medium than anything else I could devise.

  10. HoundsRye says:

    I think the argument may not be ‘comix are not just for kids.’ I think the real challenge, in the quest to induct more of/and a new readership to graphic novels, is the work the reader must do to experience the story. Or what may be perceived as an unfinished medium by non-critical readers and media pundits.

    Dave Cockrum himself cried as he watch Xmen finally fleshed out on the movie screen – coming to life, seemingly for real (as reported in an obit in USA Today – 11/29/06 – “Dave saw the movie and he cried — not because he was bitter,” (Cifford) Meth said. “He cried because his characters were on screen and they were living.”). There is a success that movie making achieves in bolstering the comix experience. The Xmen movies moved me in my appreciation of the Xmen series. It added gravity.

    Then I read on Drawn.ca that comix creators themselves are growing weary of creating when it is easier to express a situation simply in a blog entry. Previously, they would have drawn it out as a comix one-pager.

    Between the movie screen and the typed word, there is a space where creators strive to novelize comics and the reader strives to experience the aura of the story fully. It takes a lot of skill to hold an audience that must jump from words written to drawn pictures. I think it’s a physiological gap.

    I must refer to Dr. Osamu Tezuka (the creator of Astro Boy). His Buddha graphic novel cycle is an example of fully adept picture story telling that is so smooth, it is easy to absorb. Chris Ware is another graphic novelist whose delivery is skilled and smooth. The American market will embrace the gravity of the graphic novel when the graphic novel embodies more gravity – by skills that are powered by long experience.

    I read the graphic novel about the New York woman with breast cancer and I think it received attention in the press that surpassed the actual quality of the work itself. Best wishes to the author, but it is a sketchy styled work that would flesh out well as a Lifetime Channel movie.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Heidi MacDonald has a fairly comprehensive round-up of links to further reactions to Tony Long’s big anti-graphic novel screed from last week. [...]

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