More dispatches from the year, the month, the week that comics broke into the mainstream. (Again.) This New York Times Magazine article on graphic novels has been getting some good notices from comics fans and scholars, I imagine because it's filled with insightful, accurate, and not at all condescending gems like this:
Comic books are what novels used to be -- an accessible, vernacular form with mass appeal -- and if the highbrows are right, they're a form perfectly suited to our dumbed-down culture and collective attention deficit.
Other praise turns out to be no less faint:
Shelf loads of manga -- those Japanese comic books that feature slender, wide-eyed teenage girls who seem to have a special fondness for sailor suits. Superheroes, of course, still churned out in installments by the busy factories at Marvel and D.C. Also, newer sci-fi and fantasy series like ''Y: The Last Man,'' about literally the last man on earth (the rest died in a plague), who is now pursued by a band of killer lesbians.
You can ignore all this stuff -- though it's worth noting that manga sells like crazy, especially among women.
...As a comics-literate hipster, you are obligated to note and even approve of this trend. You just don't have to pay attention to any of the actual manga.
Most of the better graphic novelists consciously strive for a simple, pared-down style and avoid tricky angles and perspectives.
A considerable percentage of the new graphic novels are frankly autobiographical. They are about people who are, or who are trying to be, graphic novelists, and they all follow, or implicitly refer to, a kind of ur-narrative, which upon examination proves to be, with small variations, the real-life story of almost everyone who goes into this line of work.
To be fair to the Gray Lady, these statements are only damning to the extent that they're true.
The last excerpt - or rather, its accuracy - disturbs me most. I can't deny that fictional as well as autobiographical works derive much of their power by transmuting life into art. Rule out autobiography entirely and we'd lose reams of Hawthorne, Melville, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Ellison, Joyce, Nabokov as well as the dismally limited imaginations of so many navelgazing memoirists.
But sometimes it's hard to see any transmutation taking place; sometimes the life appears to dominate the art simply because the artist finds nothing else so fascinating, or has nothing else to say. Perhaps the real problem is laid bare in this clause:
They are about people who are, or who are trying to be, graphic novelists
If self-referentiality and genre ossification are lethal to superhero comics, they are no less so to hipster autobiography or faux autobiography. This is not cause for celebration.
Many of the Atomsmashers pieces are written in the confessional mode, lending the book a guilty, embarrassed, but even more fundamentally odd cast - it sometimes feels like a collection of apologia written not too beneficently on behalf of someone else's medium. The only contributor to work in comics is Brad Meltzer (also Glen David Gold, if you count his strong Escapist story), who contributes a piece on Terra and the Judas Contract that's more self-flagellating than I would have liked.
Sadly, many of these pieces demonstrate the same pernicious autobiographical impulse that characterizes so many of the Times' comics elect. Editor Sean Howe writes, in his introduction,
There have been numerous scholarly essays on the topic - over the years, esteemed intellectuals from George Orwell to Robert Warshow to Leslie Fiedler have waxed philosophical on the comic book - but there's been a dearth of personal writing about this most personal of art forms.
Now, which collection of essays on comics would you rather read - the one with essays by George Orwell and Robert Warshow, or the one where Brad Meltzer explains why he rated Ananda Bresloff a "Yuk" instead of a "Good" in the fifth grade? (Ah, betrayal - "Ananda was so cute.")
More seriously, it's not clear why comics should be the "most personal of art forms," except that you typically start on them when you're young and, Howe seems to think, you should be terribly ashamed of liking them, nor is it clear why more personal writing on them is warranted. When Howe starts gushing about how "comic fans have been tight-lipped about their forbidden love," how his writers have "suppressed musings," how they "wanted to share their long-whispered lingua franca, wanted to come clean about their secret identities," one begins to wonder if he doesn't think copping to a love of comics is as socially transgressive - dare we say, as morally courageous? - as getting thrown in Redding Gaol. Simply put, this book has no exigence if you're not already ashamed of its subject matter.
Happily, the collection also features a number of insightful, analytical, provocative, or just elegantly written essays. I suspect Neilalien will like the Ditko piece, as will anybody who doesn't feel obligated to pretend Objectivism is a serious philosophical position, and Jonathan Lethem (in a revision of this column) contributes a phrase - "inhuman galacticism" - that will forever color my reading of Kirby.
Yet for all that's good in the Times Magazine article and the Howe book, both prescribe the revelatory, the confessional, the autobiographical as comics' primary, if not solitary, path to respectability. What's most frustrating is that this is also the cheapest path to respectability, cheap because it promotes comics (or, in Howe's book, their critics) only to the extent that they do what the prose literary establishment already deems acceptable. That the Times can so pithily sum up the career trajectories of a great many alt-comix artists in one single, insulting narrative (Peanuts to ostracism to "excessive masturbation" to Drawn & Quarterly to the New York Times Magazine) isn't nearly as damning as the fact that the artists' work often says little more.
Finally, a point worth consideration: the Times Magazine article begins with the claim that the novel (read: contemporary literary fiction) may already be declining into niche irrelevancy. Limiting comics to the relentlessly personal, narrowly autobiographical standards of contemporary fiction will result in stories just as narcissistic as much of what's currently produced in that field - the field that, if the Times can be believed, is already in decline.
Next up in my rapidly escalating, Frank Castle-like war against bourgeois respectability and the comics: Michael Chabon, Kurt Busiek, and the little epiphany.
Update (7/14/04): Sean Collins, an early booster of the Times article, responds to my piece with the observation that contemporary alternative comics boast a diversity of genres and subject matter beyond the autobiographical. Sean seems to be under the impression that I think "that 99% of art/altcomix are autobiographical in nature," which isn't the case: I criticized the limited scope of many comix autobiographies, but I didn't claim that they define the entire field. That charge is more properly laid at the feet of Charles McGrath, who seems to think that most sophisticated comics do or should follow an autobiographical narrative. (And even there, he only identifies autobiographical comics as "a considerable percentage," not an entirety.) As Kevin Maroney noted in his comment to this thread, "the author of the Times article is caught up in a rhetoric of autobiography which even his own examples don't support." Save your affronted list of non-autobio comics for him, Sean, not me.
My first and primary criticism of the autobiographists, as McGrath represents them, is one that Sean himself makes, rightly, of many superhero comics. He declares his exhaustion with "comics about other comics about other comics", a charge to which graphic novels about graphic novelists are frequently just as susceptible as monthly series about Iron Fist.
Finally, Sean doubts how many alternative comics I've read (hint: more than I've enjoyed, which is perhaps the real problem here) because I've referred to Dan Clowes as "a non-genre writer." Actually, I said that my impression of his "arid work" was "unremarkable character-based 'nongenre' fiction, distinguished only because its genre, highly respected in literary circles, was at one point fairly uncommon in comics." I also said that another major element of his work, acidic disdain of the superhero genre, wasn't novel or trenchant enough to escape the trap of genre referentiality mentioned above. Of course, these charges couldn't be further from the truth, as most comics scholars and fans now acknowledge that Ghost World, Caricature, Pussey!, and, most recently, The Death Ray were largely ghostwritten by Chuck Austen.
Still, there's one thing Sean and I can agree on - Seth is glam as fuck.