Like This.

2 Nov
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.

6 Responses to “Like This.”

  1. Rori November 2, 2011 at 1:51 am #

    There are so many problems with the words we use to describe our particular art form. For one, a novel is prose of a certain length, though I’ve seen non-fiction work categorized under “graphic novel.”

    “Comics” doesn’t really cover the gamut, either, since it refers to the humorous tone of many early works and ignores more serious themes and treatments.

    I think Manga (roughly “whimsical drawings”) is a little more inclusive, but the French bande dessinées is the most content inclusive I personally know of, since it means “drawn strips”, and makes no reference to content (although it does to form, which is another problem, same with “sequential art”, even. Though it may be the most inclusive term, if a bit dry-sounding).

    Ultimately, I don’t mind someone using any of terms we have for … Sequential Art 🙂 as long as they are appropriate (i.e., no graphic *novel* autobiographies), I think we really need more terms. An over-arching term for the medium would certainly be nice, especially if it didn’t borrow from other mediums, but that is a long shot.

    As to it hindering the art form? I don’t know that it does severely. I think the constant hand-wringing over terms is a sure sign of our inferiority complex from within, as well as the misunderstanding of the diversity of the medium from without. Names are important, but it’s very easy to get caught up in nomenclature as an easy out to addressing more pertinent systematic problems.

    I enjoy the discussion, nonetheless.

    • darrylayo November 2, 2011 at 8:32 am #

      I believe that words hold the power to define and thus, control. To be able to define a thing is to be able to understand it, know its parameters and anticipate its behavior. But that’s not quite what I am concerned about with today’s post. It’s related.

      When I say that “graphic novels” are an aspirational term, I mean that putting one medium into the context of another is inherently an action designed to try to elevate the former. We see the same with music when we see the term “rock opera.” While rock music is successful, certain recording artists, seeking a legitimacy implied by association with “high arts” attempt to create work that superficially mimics the aspirational artform (in that case, opera), thereby elevating the popular, yet less intellectually respected artform. Invariably it only ends up insulting both artforms. I see the same tendency with “graphic novels,” but not quite so damningly because comics are a very elastic medium. But the tendency to lose sight of what makes comics special as well as what makes novels special is ever-present.

      I should also clarify that this is a more whimsical essay of mine. I by no means condemn graphic novels, nor do I really think that comics must be funny strips. But as an intellectual exercise, I am interested in entertaining the notion. You know how an artist often finds focus and productivity by adhering to a narrower set of parameters? That’s what I’m pursuing. I’m happy to argue in favor of these points for a variety of other reasons.

      1) personally, I really dig funny comics. My first experience with comics was punctuated with intense laughter and giggle-fits. I find it sad that cartoonists have seemed to flee from levity as a guiding principle. It makes me pretty sad when I see cartoonists do an amusing one-off strip and then sincerely apologize with embarrassment for diverting from their “serious” work. I firmly believe that eliciting laughter is probably the most valid reasons to create a work in the comics medium.

      Though, not the ONLY one, I’m not goofy.

      2) I am often personally lost and aimless in comics. Stuck with writer’s block and at a loss for what to produce. I see the same aimlessness among many other cartoonists who strive for the brass ring of respectability and creative satisfaction. It seems that many of us cartoonists have completely overlooked laughter as a fundamental inspiration and a legitimate reason to create work.

      3) comics criticism is terrible. Just dreadful. By intentionally limiting my scope to something purely emotional and physical (the reaction of laughter), I can use a more concrete critical compass in my readings. Either I laugh or I don’t laugh. It sounds brutal, doesn’t it? I’m all for brutality in critical thought.

      4) I am aware of how unfair it is to suddenly insist on a different set of parameters and apply it to a large swath of the medium. I’m a big fan of unfairness. The chessboard has tilted and the pieces are tumbled from their logical positions. YOUR MOVE, CARTOONIST.

      5) (could have been number one) I am extremely depressed. So consistently that I don’t often notice. Like a fish doesn’t know that it is wet.

      6) Like Chris Ware said, the conventions of the comics medium–the tools and styles and mechanics–were developed with the express purpose of telling jokes. The cartoon panel is the atom of comics, and the comic strip is the molecule. A comics page is a mixture or compound. But it all reduces down to this method of drawing and method of writing and method of thinking that is intrinsically tied to amusement. In my exploration of comics as a fundamentally unique system, unlike cinema, unlike theatre, unlike prose, unlike painting, I find that much of what makes the engine of the machine run is basically funny. I’m being a lot more divisive and narrowly focused than I’d like to be, but for the sake of taking a stance for a point of view, I think its better than the trap of opening one’s arms too wide. End up like Atlas, with the world on one’s shoulders.

      7) Maybe finally: a lot of “graphic novels” just suck. I mean, some of the most uninspired, dreadful, despicable, wretched, sick, emotionally barren, intellectually vapid, conceptually hollow work in comics falls under this “graphic novel” category. And I’m going to get into a lot of trouble for this, but honestly, a lot of times, when a cartoonist says “I’m working on my graphic novel,” what I hear is “I’m working on flushing my talent down the toilet.” Cartoonists hold back, in graphic novels; they withhold their better cartooning instincts in favor of “sustained narrative.” A lot of them don’t appear to be strong readers of “prose novels” in the first place. That’s not a strong problem because film is a kind of literature and many graphic novels are patterned after filmic storytelling. However, many of these same cartoonists lack the basic sustained-narrative-storytelling-capabilities to write ANY story of considerable length. The work tends to be tepid, cliche-ridden and cliche-driven. There is no depth to much of this work, save for the emotional beats copied from popular literature (films, television programs, other comic books and of course the occasional prose novel). I would rather see all of these cartoonists turn to the funny papers than lend their continued support to the mind-destroying “graphic novel” trend. Away with unnecessary books. Many cartoonists simply haven’t put in the hours of READING to be strong writers of sustained narrative. Away with aspirations of “author” status. Away with graphic novels.

      So, this is largely a platform for engaging an oft-dismissed notion.

  2. Mickey Quinn November 2, 2011 at 10:41 am #

    This really made me think! I’ve often used and recommended cinematography and storyboarding books to learn about things like framing, pacing, and angles for comics – it’s definitely falling into a trap, but compared to films and literature comics really has a lack of serious reference books about the form itself (not to say there aren’t some great ones – but I could probably count them on my hands!) So I wonder if a key to becoming a more stand-alone medium would be a more prolific study, even research of the unique form of comics?

    I kind of agree with what you’re saying about “graphic novels”…working in a library, sometimes I pick up one of those graphic novels that are supposed to be this fantastic pillar of the form, and a lot of the time I’m really disappointed. There’s one in-particular I’m thinking of, and it’s what I think a lot of people would call a “classic” of comics, and while the author explored emotive paneling and other unique comic elements… I almost feel like you could tell it was “written”, as a novel, first – a lot of the visuals were just repeating what the words were saying.

    Right now I’m just feeling kind of disillusioned about “serious graphic novels” in general, like I just want make silly, ridiculous, sometimes melodramatic stuff, but for some reason I’ve been made to feel like it’s less valid because it can’t be compared to the Western literary canon the way that a lot of “graphic novels” can.

    Anyways, I’m not as eloquent as you or your other readers, but I just wanted to say this was a cool article! I’m really interested in this discussion.

  3. Evan November 2, 2011 at 12:47 pm #

    what is funny to me, and I may have talked to you about this in the past, is that “novel” (meaning “new”) was originally a kind of condescending name for the medium when it was in a similar cultural spot to where comics are now. talked a little bit about that here:

  4. RM Rhodes November 2, 2011 at 4:04 pm #

    The discussion about whether the term is useful and/or effective and/or accurate is worthy and all, but the truth is that it is unlikely to disappear from common usage. Almost by default, it mostly refers to a certain, standardized form of mass-produced product that can be bought and sold: perfect bound, over 40 pages at 6.625 x 10.5 inches.

    The discussion about whether comics should be long form is completely separated from the term – which really only dates to Will Eisner in the mid-80s. After all, the pieces that Rodolphe Topffer produced (and Goethe laughed at) were short books; original creations that stood on their own, artistically, and could be easily sold (and pirated). They’re funny as hell – and I’ll grant you that humor is always an easier sell.

    But that doesn’t mean that serious long form fiction cannot (or should not) be produced in the comics format. Point 7 is largely a problem of expectations and ability. I’m going to take the controversial stance that more artists should admit they can’t write the same way that so many writers are honest about their drawing ability.

    I understand the argument that comics work best in a disposable format – some of my favorite comics were in the newspaper every day. But disposable strips and graphic novels are not a binary toggle switch – it doesn’t just have to be one or the other. There is room for both approaches, as long as the concept/character/theme/structure/voice/execution are all appropriate to the choices that are made.

    Finally, have you seen Leviathan? A Sunday-only newspaper strip that is funny, but also explores how deep you can get in a single large panel.

  5. jdalton November 2, 2011 at 4:46 pm #

    I don’t think you’re wrong, but I think there are at least two other factors at work in comics’ tendency to fawn on film and prose, besides our medium’s ongoing inferiority complex.

    First, comics are still in a development process. Despite predating film, we seem to be stuck in this perpetual adolescence. Comics hasn’t grown up. the great inventors have been few and far between, and their inventions are rarely copied. The comics-specific tools we have at our disposal are still too few. And film and prose have such lovely toys to borrow and play with. The influx of manga in the last few decades has allowed for huge advances in comics vocabulary, but only compared to the dearth of vocabulary available beforehand. This partly relates back to the inferiority complex- we’ve been unwilling to experiment with anything too radical or new, but it’s a feedback loop. And I think the disposability of comics, the “trash for kids” mentality, held us back for a very long time too.

    The other problem is a practical one. Not enough people read comics, so the tools we do have are not widely known. Everybody watches movies or television. Everybody understands what a voiceover is or how to interpret a flashback. Only those who are highly literate in comics will understand some of the stranger things you can do on a page of static images in sequence. By being experimental, a comicker risks losing the casual audience who is only familiar with prose and film. How many people ONLY read Chris Ware? I’d wager his entire audience consists of people who already read a lot of other comics.

    Like I say, I agree with you, and more comics need to push the envelope and just be COMICS. But I can’t maintain any anger towards artists who use tools from other media. They’re just using things they know will work.

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