By Darryl Ayo
It strikes me as very sick that “graphic novels” are an aspirational status for comics. I get hung up on words easily, but something that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind–“graphic novels.” Comics that are like novels. No matter how it’s put there’s a subtextual implication that places “novels” on a pedestal. The “novel” form of literature is something significant and self-evidently legitimate, whereas comics are not. The “graphic novel” is a product of a period in time in which “comics” were considered so lowly that they needed to be propped up and likened to more respectable artforms in order to be considered worthy of note.
I think about how much of modern and contemporary comics creation is patterned after novel-length fiction writing. While comics are an elastic medium that can fit many containers, it suddenly strikes me as a huge loss for the comic medium that so much effort is expended into fitting comics into this novel-shaped container. For that matter, film-centric thought and theory is often applied to comics, particularly in that the pacing of a single graphic novel (picture-driven narrative) is closer to that of a feature length film than a prose book, which, for virtue of the condensed substance of words (as opposed to pictures), can contain much more information.
While many comic creators from the mainstream superhero world seem to gather their creative sources from film and television, particularly in terms of graphic styling, pace and storytelling, many comic creators from the literary comics world and “alternative” comics world seem to derive their creative source from prose books. One side criticizes the other for making “thinly-veiled movie pitches,” the other size criticizes the opposite by wondering why did the more cerebral, internally-focused narrative need to be illustrated. I think both sides are wrong for discounting the validity of their polar opposites and either method has its validity. More importantly though, I think both sides are wrong because they essentially seek to legitimize their work in comics by aspiring to fit in with some other medium.
“As thrilling as any blockbuster movie!”
“Layered, nuanced and subtle as the most masterful prose!”
While I’m at it, there’s something that feels hollow and faintly like despair in comics that merge tightly with gallery/museum fine art.
I’m reminded of Andrea Juno’s interview with Chris Ware in which Mr. Ware quips that his literary comics are attempting to tell a deeply emotionally nuanced story using the tools of jokes. That passage stuck with me for years and years, but only very recently have I begun to unravel its implications. To turn it around on Ware (sorry), I ask: is being “like” prose literature the highest that comics can aspire to? Is being “like” film,” for that matter, the highest that comics can aspire to? Shouldn’t there be something that’s essential and native to comics? Something worth exploring and developing independently of aspiring to compete with prose writers or motion-photographic storytellers (ie “filmmakers”)?
I’ve started to believe, even if only just a little bit, that “graphic novels” are a trap. That making a comic “like” something else can cheapen both the comic and the something-else. Of course, there have been numerous worthy graphic novels. There have been many worthy cinema-inspired comics. But I have begun to wonder if these are not merely interesting tricks, to some extent.
And to let Chris Ware off the hook, he’s probably one of the few working cartoonists who can make comics that are less aspirational of other media, even though he is quite prominently a member of the “graphic novel generation.” Ware is quite capable of producing graphic structures comprised solely of comics-substance; structures which do not aspire to be taken seriously as novels or compared to films. It’s just that he also does a fair deal of the novel stuff as well. Let me abruptly toss you several decades into the past to talk about George Herriman’s Krazy Kat Sunday strips which are another fine example of comics that did not seek to mimic the mechanics of another medium (at the time, theatre and vaudeville was a huge influence on the budding comics artform). Traveling even further back, you could reference Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland for the same reasons.
There’s something subtle that I feel slips away when comics are asked to conform too tightly to another artform’s structures and rhythms. Perhaps there isn’t a “great graphic novel” because great *comics* aren’t built that way.