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July 13, 2004


Kevin J. Maroney

The article betrays what you claim is its central aesthetic point. Of the "graphic novelists" who are most at the center of the piece--art spiegleman, Seth, Chester Brown, Joe Sacco, Chris Ware, and Daniel Clowes--only Chester Brown is widely known for his autobiographical work, and the article talks about that almost not at all.

Okay, Sacco and spiegleman are both borderline cases. Maus has a lot of art spiegleman in it, and I think the most interesting aspects of it are directly or indirectly about art's relationship with his father. Sacco's early work in Yahoo has several long autobiographical stories, but the work that really brought him to public attention, Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde, are non-fiction reporting. Yes, Sacco is a presence in both, but so is Philip Gourevitch in We Regret to Inform You... or, for that matter, Woodstein and Bernward in All The President's Final Days, and no one would call them "confessional" or "autobiographical".

I think my point is that the author of the Times article is caught up in a rhetoric of autobiography which even his own examples don't support.

(And if he is seriously interested in discussing "the graphic novel" as "the comics literature of autobiography", why the hell doesn't he discuss Harvey Pekar?)


Because Pekar isn't published by Drawn & Quarterly?

Granted, neither are Art Spiegelman or Alan Moore, but they're both easy, obvious, all but unignorable subjects. You'd think Pekar would be an equally obvious choice, though, and even more appropriate given McGrath's take on what constitutes "adult comics."


Pekar so resolutely doesn't fit the "lovably quirky hipster" archetype that they seemed to cram everyone into. Well, none of them do - Dan Clowes, author of mopey-teenage-girl Ghost World, is more palatable to NY Times Magazine readers than Dan Clowes, author of baseball-with-penises comics (or "comix" or whatever). But Pekar...

I didn't like that bit of trying to homogenize things down to some pasty near-sighted white dude in an ironic hat (when comic creators can also be overweight guys with ungainly facial hair). and i didn't like how they treated Sacco like some weirdo anomaly just for engaging with the world around him (which i guess he is but that's not a fault of the MEDIUM so...). but... my mom left a long message on my answering machine reading parts of it (which i now realize is a very very sad image, some elderly woman reading new york times articles about comics into an answering machine... sort of depressing...). but, anyway, yeah, i figure she's the demographic who reads the Times Magazine so... it could've been worse.

the 80's era articles were MUCH worse, from what i dimly remember. this one said nice things about some people i like, and if it suffered from generalities, at least some of them were stuff about how its interesting to see pictures telling a story.

last time i read a ny times magazine article it was that awful sophia cappola one. i went in liking Virgin Suicides, and came out hating her. well, Lost in Translation didn't help... though the ny times magazine talking about how boring reading books can be- do they still run that thing where William Safire obsesses psychotically over grammar minutae (in lieu of his own resolute awfulness)?

and... i like comics and all, but- and i don't know this for sure- but i think maybe the novel isn't dead???

Sean Howe

Hi Marc,

It probably won’t surprise you that I have a somewhat different view of ATOMSMASHERS’s intent.

I’m not sure what so raises your hackles about the personal (“autobiographical”) mode. My interest in gathering these writers was to open a dialogue about an artform that’s not discussed nearly as widely nor as loudly as the novel, the film, or even the sitcom. Happily, that’s started to change in the two years since the book was first conceived, but you’ll have to admit that the comics reviews in last weekend’s Times Book Review (to say nothing of the NYT Magazine article the previous week) was enough of a novelty to warrant a loud buzz in the comics blogosphere.

It’s partially an aesthetic bias, I suppose, that led me to encourage the writers to get as “personal” as they wanted with the material. Many of the writers had astounded me with similarly intimate essays on Darth Vader (Lydia Millet), The Searchers (Jonathan Lethem), D.H. Lawrence (Geoff Dyer), Billy Jack (Chris Offutt), etc., etc. For most of my life, I’ve had a hard time finding people to engage in conversation about comic books. This was my way of getting that conversation topic out in the open a little more.

I’m not ashamed of comics at all (though the quality of most contemporary superhero comics is pretty shameful), and I’m surprised you took that from my introduction to the book. I tried to be as clear as I could about the reasons I think comics are “the most personal of art forms”—unlike a movie or play or album or painting, you must experience them alone (unless someone’s reading over your shoulder). Which leaves the written word—but here the added visual component of comics trumps “regular books” for infinite permutations of interpretation. And that seems all the more reason for the “personal” bent of the pieces. (And be careful what you wish for with Warshow—he wrestled with the comics issue, almost begrudgingly defending their existence simply because he abhorred the idea of censorship. He was certainly no Team Comics kind of guy.)

Sean Howe

And by the way: thanks for the continued intelligent discourse on comics. I really enjoy this site.




Thanks for the reply. When I reread your introduction, I realized I didn't do justice to your comments on the solitary, contemplative nature of reading comics; the "most personal" tag makes more sense than I suggested. (Although I'm not sure comics are inherently more immersive or solitary than, say, prose or poetry.) However, the rereading also confirmed that from the first page to the last, your introduction situates a love of comics as a carefully concealed hobby fit for outsiders and freaks. Frankly, I thought you oversold the secret, ostracized, forbidden-love aspect, perhaps because it makes a better case for this collection as the end of the long shame.

What raises my hackles about the personal is, I suspect, what raised Michael Chabon's hackles about it in his issue of McSweeney's: not that it's bad, but that it's choked out everything else in literary fiction and now appears to be expanding laterally. It can produce great stories, great comics, great essays, but not only is it not the only way to go, I don't find it so dazzling a standard that its mere absence from a field is reason enough to solicit a collection of still more personal writing. (The quality of many of the essays in your collection, I should add, is more than sufficient reason.)

I also think a little of this personally-grounded (I'm trying not to say "obsessed") criticism goes a long way. I loved Lethem's essay, both in the London Review of Books and your collection, but it reads very differently in a magazine or newspaper supplement filled with a variety of authorial tones. Grouped with sixteen other, equally intimate pieces, the novelty disappears.

As for Warshow, well, I'm no Team Comics kind of guy either. I suppose I latched onto his name because of a piece written in Bookforum a couple of years ago by one of your contributors, Geoff Dyer. (Between Lethem, Dyer, and Andrew Hultkrans there was a strong Bookforum slant to the proceedings, all for the better.) Dyer wrote of Warshow,

A writer in the sense endorsed by the young Sontag ("someone interested in 'everything'"), he was at the mercy of his scattered enthusiasms - and they were sufficiently numerous to have taken him in many directions. Not surprisingly, then, his legacy is felt not in a recognizable school of influence so much as in examples of sharply individualized voices (Greil Marcus, say, or David Thomson). Warshow's work is the product of a distinctive literary sensibility rather than that of an academic researcher, and he brings to the task of commentary the subtle empathy and understanding of the novelist.

His stance on comics is more or less irrelevant; I appreciate his stance on his own writing, the stance of the critic wedded to that of the novelist. Not that of the memoirist.

Anyway, thanks for your comments, and I'm glad you enjoy the site. I've certainly enjoyed Atomsmashers (pay no attention to the bile; most of that was my reaction to McGrath contaminating its neighbor). I take it you've seen the Harper's review?

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