Tuesday, July 08, 2008
What I Don’t Know About Comics
I came to Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics for help clearing a confusion. This confusion arose from my experience here at The Valve, namely, many of the folks here, our glorious former editor foremost, seemed gaga for comics, yet I wasn’t. Heck, I don’t even own a copy of Maus. If these peers, people I respect, find them important, what am I missing? Am I stuck as the guy in the New Yorker cartoon (cited in the first paragraph of RC): “Now I have to pretend to like graphic novels too?” It’s not as if I’ve got a high art prejudice. Despite being the only Adorno fanboy here at this site, I’m totally gone on pop culture. Pop music (going back about 100 years or so) is my most cherished art form.
But more confusing than that, I thought I was into comics. I read the comics page of the local free weekly every chance I get, and I own volumes of Zippy the Pinhead, Matt Groening’s Life is Hell, as well as Tony Millionaire’s Maakies and Michael Kupperman’s Snake ‘n Bacon Cartoon Cabaret (though with the latter I much preferred to the original strip to the revised book form).
So I looked to Wolk to explain to me the difference between what I was interested in and what I wasn’t interested in, in other words, for an explanation of the genre differences within comics. I have always liked comic strips, the kind of things found in newspapers (of the daily or weekly variety), but I’ve never been taken by what is often called “comic books,” the stuff sold back in the day on those rotating displays at the 7-11.
What did the book show me? As far as understanding the things I don’t like, I still don’t understand, but if you will bear with me, I will share my ignorance with you, gentle reader, in the hopes that I can receive further enlightenment in the comments. But Reading Comics did some much better than what I was hoping for. It has shown me that there were things that I might like very much, new possibilities of delight. And now I don’t have to pretend. I may still not understand the graphic novel (as the following comments will undoubtedly reveal), but my interest has been sparked.
THE LESS INTERESTING PART
But what does this matter to you, dear reader? Described in objective rather than subjective terms, my purpose in reading Reading Comics was to learn more about genre distinctions within comics. This subject was taken up in the first half of the book, the historico-theoretical exposition, which was the weaker half. The abstractions were not its strong point. But Wolk seems to recognize this, or at least he treats his abstractions with a light hand. And that was something I liked. He has a good sense of how hard he can push a point.
This light hand is especially evident in his treatment of genre distinctions within comics. First off, he states what he says is a common place within comics criticism, that comics themselves are not a genre, they’re a medium. But when it comes to considering what genres there are, Wolk prefers to emphasize the problems. He quotes Scott McCloud’s definition, from the canonical Understanding Comics, that comics are “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer,” then immediately follows up with a paraphrase of Dylan Horrocks’s critique of McCloud’s definition: “although McCloud’s definition counts photo-booth strips and Hogarth’s etchings as comics, it deliberately excludes single panel cartoons like ‘Dennis the Menace’…”
For Wolk, such problems are to be expected. He is quite taken with Samuel R. Delany’s essay “The Politics of the Paraliterary” and its warning against strict definitions, especially how the more thoroughly they try to paint the boundaries, the more likely something is the slip past them. At one point, he forswears any definition at all: “I’m not going to define ‘comics’ here, because if you have picked up this book and have not been spending the past century trapped inside a magic lantern, you already pretty much know what they are, and ‘pretty much’ is good enough.”
Still, there are different kinds of comics, and most importantly, Reading Comics specifically leaves some kinds of comics out of its discussion. Wolk explains his choices:
while I’ll be covering a pretty broad range of material, I’m passing over a lot of perfectly legitimate comics, too. I’m mostly interested in sustained narrative, which means comic books and graphic novels, much more than newspaper comic strips and one-off cartoon illustrations. I’m basically going to avoid discussing manga—the enormous category of Japanese comics—and its international derivatives altogether, partly because manga seems to operate by a slightly different set of rules, but mostly because I simply don’t have a taste for most of it, and I’m not going to go on about stuff I don’t ‘get.’ I’m also going to deal here only with work published in English and available without much difficulty in the United States, which rules out most of the enormous body of European comics and a lot of worthy British material.
“Sustained narrative” would then be Wolk’s term for his preferred genre. But he notes that the term is not all that exclusive, and that even single-panel gag comics such as “Dennis the Menace” rely on the reader’s sense that the strip is an episode in a larger story. And I think he’s correct here. Still, I wonder if there is a possible literary analogy to be made, a parallel between the graphic novel-comic strips distinction and the narrative-lyric distinction. Or at least, one possible aspect of the narrative-lyric distinction, viz. narrative as a vehicle from which content may be abstracted, while for lyric, not so much. That is, a synopsis can provide a robust account of a narrative, but not of a lyric. A robust account of a lyric must give at least equal consideration to the form of the poem, and not just rhythm and sound, but the rhetorical situation.
But it’d be good for me to remember Wolk’s hesitancy with distinctions here. I’m being vague, to say the least. And what do they have to do with comics?
Well, for Wolk abstractable narrative content is very important. For him just about every successful superhero is the embodiment of a metaphor, e.g. “The Hulk…is a terrific metaphor for the dehumanizing effects of rage.” That would be a pretty obvious example. Wolk believes it’s much more complicated. When he claims, “genre comics, especially superhero comics, involve concrete representations of abstract ideas,” he’s willing to extend the claim a good ways, that comics are “the closest thing that exists right now to the ‘novel of ideas’.”
What then would count for the lyric in comics (assuming my analogy is apt)? What is the form that is distinguishable from the content? I would like to say drawing. I believe that the comics that I have enjoyed I enjoyed for their drawing as much as for their writing. A prime example would be Calvin and Hobbes. Bill Watterson’s drawing, the efficiency of its expression, the coiled mania in every squiggle, is as captivating as any of the jokes. And to be honest, I’m not that entertained by the standard superhero imagery. It’s fun, but it feels like the hyper-quantity production within a narrow range of visual forms. But then, bravura artwork alone doesn’t send me. Dave Sims’s Cerebus seems, from Wolk’s account and my preliminary readings, to have a story that is equal parts interesting, boring, and repugnant. But the drawing is amazing throughout, and that throughout goes for thousands of pages. In visual terms, it’s a masterpiece of an inexhaustible genius. Still, that’s not enough for me to want to own it. But then again, I’ve enjoyed my share of Dilbert, especially when I too worked for the phone company, and that’s got seriously lame artwork. So I seem to be as confused as I ever was.
THE MORE INTERESTING PART
If I had stopped reading Reading Comics halfway through, I’d have been left with this further confusion. But in the second part of the book, where Wolk gives short descriptions of twenty important narrative comics artists (most of them individual writer-drawers, some of them writer-drawer teams, a few of them just writers), I found my interest in the book intensified, to the point of delight. It became one of the most interesting books of criticism I have ever read, something that made me think harder not only about comics, but all of aesthetics and art. And it convinced me that there were graphic novels I should read. And I since have, with great pleasure and more.
Wolk too would seem to prefer the second half of the book, since it is given more than 2/3rds the page. His preference for a catalogue of descriptions over a taxonomy of categories even appears in the first part of the book, which breaks out of its exposition to close with an over eight page list, in bullet points, of things Wolk “loves about comics.”
It’s these catalogues of pleasures that are the great part of the book. Wolk was able to talk me into thinking these things could be cool, and my preliminary readings have made good on the promise. For example, his description of Charles Burns’s Black Hole intrigued me, and the work itself fulfilled the promise. An arresting imagery drives the story, and the simplicity of the imagery seems to isolate the emotional content, to allow Burns to present it in a brutally direct manner. Form and content work together in a powerful way.
Another example was David B’s Epileptic (the original title, L’Ascencion du Haut Mal, is much better than the English translation). Here the combination of form and content is an overt theme, because the story is about in large part about imagery, about picture-thinking, the use of imagery to make sense of things. Wolk rightly criticizes the contemporary vogue for memoir, but David B.’s comic memoirs have little preciousness about them. They do not ask the reader to feel sorry for him, nor do they allow the reader to feel sorry for themselves.
These are powerful stories that can only be told in comic form. I think they can help me better understand the importance of imagery in my own thought and poetry. I should have read these things a long time ago.
Wasn’t science fiction supposed to be where we found the “novel of ideas”? Speaking as a fellow compulsive allegorizer, I suspect Wolk confuses an aspect of the way he writes for an aspect of his writing’s subject matter. It’s easy to get muddled about which parts are whose in the heat of passion.
For what it’s worth, yours is the narrative-lyric distinction I typically hear.
I was never into comics except for the Sunday comics page from our local newspaper, just as you have stated. It was only until several years ago that one of my co-workers brought comics to my attention. It took him almost a full year to get me to even think about viewing/reading comics. Once he explained the wide variety of comics I began to feel a little more interested. Now I cannot get enough of them because their are so many different areas and perspectives to choose from. It really is a different world with comics now and I regret not starting earlier.