Tuesday, August 05, 2008
Ted Clayton on “Reading Comics”
This is Ted Clayton’s contribution to our “Reading Comics” Event. Clayton is the proud winner of a free copy of Wolk’s book, because he sent me an email in response to my Crooked Timber post on the subject. Other than that, I don’t know a lot about the guy. So let that be a lesson to you. - the former editor
It’s a pretty safe bet that I am the least comics-knowledgeable person involved in this event, so if you’re looking for keen, informed insight into the medium of graphic novels or its practitioners you should probably skip this piece entirely. Like probably everyone else here, I’ve read Maus (both parts) and Watchmen, but that’s about it for me, unless you count Action Philosophers as a graphic novel. As a kid and a teenager I read and collected comic books, but those days are now a couple of decades in the past, although I do still read them in the grocery store if I’ve got a few minutes.
Anyway, my interest in Wolk’s book comes from my scholarly interest in Aesop’s Fables, which led me to an interest in Bill Willingham’s comic/graphic novel Fables, because part of my interest is in thinking about how the content and purposes of fables have changed from their origins three millennia or so ago (with particular interest in the Greek use of fables) to today. The question I’m considering as it presently stands is: what is the best way, or what are the best ways, to understand the continuity (if there is any) between what the ancient Greeks were doing with these fables and what people are doing with them now? I thought that Fables would give me an example of what was being done now, and it has, and it has given me some ideas, although they have not been what I had expected (I’ve also really enjoyed reading the series). My hope for Wolk’s book was that it would give me a way to contextualize Willingham’s work and to understand it relative to what other people are doing in the same format – investigating the medium in order to help figure out the message, would be one way to put it. (Whatever else I got out of his book, I owe Wolk for making it clear that graphic novels are a medium rather than a genre).
There’s a journal article (I hope) lurking somewhere in my notes on Aesop, Willingham, and Wolk, but I’m not going to try to find it here. Instead I will just point out three ways Wolk’s book was useful to me and leave it at that. Mostly these are things I have to think more about.
First, Wolk provides Scott McCloud’s definition of comics in order to critique it, and he notes that although it would seem to include illustrated children’s books McCloud himself appears to have rejected that idea. I wish he’d explained why, but it just means I have to find out myself. Illustrated versions of Aesop have been available for centuries, and of course the character of the illustrations that accompany the fables is going to affect the understanding of their meaning, especially for a child. Could the case be made that the early illustrated editions of Aesop’s fables are among the first graphic novels? Obviously there are many ways that fables aren’t like novels at all, but as Wolk shows many authors of “graphic novels” are not in fact writing novels (p. 62) and it seems to me that some of them appear to be writing things that are like fables, where anonymous characters meet nowhere in particular and have a contested interaction resulting in the defeat of one of the characters and a message about why that defeat happened. (The definition of “fable” is at least as contested as the definition of “graphic novel").
Wolk makes the case for comics/graphic novels as being their own thing, not just prose with pictures or art with words (p. 14; see also p. 25). And he says that attempts to turn prose and movies into comics almost always fail (p. 13). Fables were originally prose, and were originally oral rather than textual, and yet they seem to translate into the comic medium (if I’m right that they should count) pretty easily. But they don’t need accompanying art in the way that a children’s book like Harold and the Purple Crayon does, which wouldn’t work anywhere near as well without showing what Harold was drawing.
Second, I’d already noticed that despite the title there are actually very few fable characters in the Fables universe as it has unfolded so far (I’m current through issue 74). This is, I think, because in Aesop’s fables the individual animals don’t have any particular individual identities. They have traits associated with their kind, and the same animal can represent more than one kind of trait in different fables, but there’s no sense that they are unique characters, and this seems like a prerequisite for a narrative. The fables also lack any setting – no specific place or time is ever given for where and when the events take place. This too is usually a prerequisite for a narrative. Instead Willingham uses characters from folktales, fairy tales, and legends, like the Big Bad Wolf, Snow White, Gepetto, and so on, which have the kind of identities and back stories that fables lack. (I’m still thinking about why he chose Fables as the title. It might just be that “fable” is from the Latin “fabula,” meaning “a story,” so in that sense it’s perfectly appropriate).
Third, Wolk talks about “nostalgia for earlier comics” among comics readers (p. 69), and I wonder if this isn’t something that’s important for me too. Most of us could recite a number of fables off the top of our heads, without necessarily knowing where we learned them in the first place, and revisiting familiar childhood stories is often a pleasure for people as well. But, as he also notes (p. 103), adults, unlike children, need stories that go somewhere, and for the reasons I’ve mentioned above fables can’t really do that. It would be interesting to know how old the average Fables reader is, but I don’t think there’s any easy way to find out (if there is, please e-mail me - clayt1ew at cmich.edu - and tell me what it is).
I guess that’s it. I hope this has been at least a little interesting to some of you. Thanks for your time.
I think that Willingham says somewhere in an interview that the premise behind FABLES was to use characters who were in the public domain. His original idea for the Adversary was Peter Pan, but then he discovered that the boy who never grows up was bequeathed by Barrie to a children’s hospital, which was entitled to royalties for use of the character.
Perhaps one way of approaching the Aesop/Willingham connection is through the question of personae - we kind of know in Aesop how the wolf will act, what the fox will do, and then there are some animals who act against our preconceptions or surprise us because we have none. I always found the story of Zeus and the frogs puzzling - and fascinating, because, as an American, it struck me as odd that a group of talking animals would ask the god for a king (as opposed to holding a constitutional convention). I’m sure that the Greeks of Aesop’s time had particular character types for storks, dolphins (drowning sailors transformed by Dionysus), and monkeys, but of course these have become less familiar to us as our own associations have clustered around these creatures.
Of course, in Willingham, Prince Charming acts like Prince Charming would, if he had gone through multiple divorces and were cut loose in a sexually liberated society. The history of Bigby Wolf plays out as a story of redemption. Goldilocks is arguably the most altered character, a humorless and homicidal caricature of PC-revolutionary dogmas. Her closest literary stepsister would be Merry Levov of Philip Roth’s AMERICAN PASTORAL, the girl with a speech impediment who plants a bomb in protest of Vietnam and becomes a fugitive. I wonder whether Roth’s refusal or inability to portray Merry in a sympathetic light (she is seen from the outside, as pathologically stubborn, self-righteous to the point of self-destruction, eaten up with hatred for her parents and their safe suburban ways) can be likened to Willingham’s insistence on treating Goldilocks purely in comic terms, as the unironic moralist who always has a ready answer for her questionable actions (such as murdering Snow White) and eccentric tastes (inter-species sex).