Invasion of the Literaries
February 7, 2013 9:05 AM   Subscribe

We might not get laughed out of the room, but the question is: would we want to be stuck in it with some guy who would ask: Since we already have Aristophanes, who needs Kurtzman? Since we have Erasmus of Rotterdam, why would we want Steve Martin? With Wagner still available, who cares about the Firehouse Five? Furthermore, would we let that guy organize the party music?

What appears at first to be taking a more stringent view is in fact applying irrelevant criteria. It dismantles the idea of a comic and leaves the parts hopelessly undone.
Eddie Campbell on fallacies of comics criticism.
posted by rollick (18 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite

 
Oh god damn, yes. Eddie Campbell, you jewel, yes. Quoting Robert Fiore:

What comics give us most of all is the experience of comics. What I mean is the way a given cartoonist portrays the world- the particular kind of subjectivity that is the cartoonist’s special privilege- and the way the cartoonist tells his story from panel to panel. You can get this experience from comics whose intellectual content is fairly negligible.

And Campbell himself:

To explain the value of Casablanca by its plot would be lame. To represent Billie Holiday’s work in terms of song lyrics would be to do her an injustice, which is not to say that there weren’t felicitous moments. The true appreciation of all this stuff demands a less linear mind.

I agree wholeheartedly with the main thrust of this essay, and it's a wonderful counterpoint to the current crop of comics-as-literature reviews that have been springing up in the last decade. Thanks so much for posting this.
posted by Greg Nog at 9:30 AM on February 7, 2013 [4 favorites]


"I agree wholeheartedly with the main thrust of this essay... Thanks so much for posting this."

2nded.

"Contrast this with what we get in Mad…"
From that link: "There is simply no excuse for allowing our unseeing nostalgia to so overshadow our aesthetic faculties."

The irony is how much censorship Gaines endured and how much was stolen from Mad and washed and watered down.
We might not want to lose the classics, but in the same sense, we already have. Every time we see movies on t.v. neutered for content, time, shits & giggles, and whatever else. I can't remember any mass screenings of Ran or Paths of Glory or Ivan’s Childhood or La Grande Illusion. They were never brought to me, I had to go out of my way to see them.
Saw Apocalypse Now on t.v. What a travesty that was.

"Since we have Erasmus of Rotterdam, why would we want Steve Martin?"
Why would we want Steve Ma.... I bid you good day sir!

"This is exactly how it was done a couple of hundred years ago in illustrated storytelling, before Charles Dickens arrived on the scene with the intention of making a more serious literary enterprise of the writer’s craft."

It's what Dante does in the Divine Comedy. Breaks the 4th wall all the time. In a number of (then) innovative ways. And his work was subject to many of the same criticisms the Campbell is talking about here. The Divine Comedy was written in the common tongue (then Italian) instead of Latin as 'serious' literature was done then.

It seems things undergo some sort of consecration by time. Most certainly art. The Divine Comedy runs the gamut from fart jokes to sublime Gnosis (theology aside, it is, by definition, a man learning how to know himself in relation to absolute/ liberating knowledge).
Most people forget the fart jokes.
Indeed, Mozart was "common" art as well. Dry highbrow ivory tower composers don't write canons titled "Lick my ass."
posted by Smedleyman at 9:47 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


There's a lot of confusion here about what standard is being aspired to. The word "literary" and "quality" aren't necessarily synonymous. Literature has become a genre of writing, and it suggests certain types of style and content more than it guarantees quality. Likewise, works can have a ton of polish without being "literary."

Invoking the ghost of literature attracts attention, but there's too much axe-grinding around that term for it to be terribly useful. Are there high quality comics? Sure. Are there intelligent comics? Sure. Are there aesthetically pleasing comics? Sure. Are there creative comics? Sure. Are they LITERARY?

I don't think there'd be anything contentious at all in the article if it wasn't framed in the context of a sometimes imaginary war between literati and the hoi polloi.
posted by Stagger Lee at 10:03 AM on February 7, 2013


For those keeping score at home, Eddie's essay was inspired by yet another Hooded Utilitarian article.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:07 AM on February 7, 2013


It sounds like something that I might have said once or twice.

What I've tried to say here in the past is not that the best comics are not as good as the best literature but that there are precious few comics that compare to the best literature. In my personal opinion, From Hell is one of those comics. Not all comics need to be From Hell, there is room for Mad just as there is room for beach novels and The Secret and thousands of other books but just imagine if there were only one Great Novel, or one Great Author.

I've also think many comics suffer from the same problem genre fiction suffers from. There are constraints they must follow and themes they must address in order to be comics, just as there are constraints SF novels must follow in order to be SF. It is even more pronounced for comics as so many of them are produced within existing series.

If you are trying to write a comic about universal truths, or a personal story, or anything at all, odds are it is going to play out with superheros wearing capes just as so many SF stories about universal truths play out with robots, space ships, or time travel.

This brings me to the last point. If you write a comic without superheros, or SF without SF tropes, it becomes, almost by definition, an exploration of the form itself. Even if you try to rid yourself of the constraints, you are still trapped by them. Think about all the best comics, how many of them are a re-examination of comic tropes.

The best of them, like Watchmen, are pretty tantalizing, offer a examination of archetypes and a glimpse of humanity as a whole. The kazillion batman re-reads are a bit less interesting to me because they offer the same insights everyone else has and only change the meaning of batman.
posted by Ad hominem at 10:07 AM on February 7, 2013


I actually think the most interesting parts of this are about the way the industry is run, artistic control, authorship, and creativity. I suspect that if you compared the two industries you'd find that the major publishers in books and comics had more in common with each other than they did with the handful of broke artists struggling to create "literature", regardless of which medium they're working in. I think that a discussion focusing on those terms would be much more interesting, and much less divisive.
posted by Stagger Lee at 10:10 AM on February 7, 2013


"If you are trying to write a comic about universal truths, or a personal story, or anything at all, odds are it is going to play out with superheros wearing capes."

True. Also, the odds are if you try and write a novel about universal truths it will feature a teenage wizard into s&m finding the Holy Grail.
posted by Hartster at 11:22 AM on February 7, 2013


Sure, but teenage wizard novels are rare enough that one series is notable, notable comics are the ones without super heros. Sure, Walking Dead, or Y: The Last Man, or Transmetropolitan ( I'll admit I've only read maybe half of each of those so they may have super heros in them at some point) but those are notable because of what they don't have.

Nobody ever says "you should write a comic". Comics have a higher barrier to entry, you need to draw, or find someone to draw, you need to know the language of comics. People who have a story to tell write a book, for the most part, not 100% of the time, people write comics to tell comic stories.

The lower requirements mean we also get a wider array of voices.

I do not hate comics. I will dutifully read anything recommended, as long as it is readily available at a reasonable price.
posted by Ad hominem at 11:46 AM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Nobody ever says "you should write a comic". Comics have a higher barrier to entry, you need to draw, or find someone to draw, you need to know the language of comics. People who have a story to tell write a book, for the most part, not 100% of the time, people write comics to tell comic stories.

The lower requirements mean we also get a wider array of voices.


Webcomics are the true voice of the people
posted by dng at 11:57 AM on February 7, 2013


I have a shit-ton to say about this, but don't have the time to say it right now, so I'll stick to this:

At the library the other day, I grabbed Mid-Life by Joe Ollman off of the graphic novel rack on a whim, just because the cover art caught my eye (and I guess because I'm looking down the barrel of midlife, but that's a side concern). And I've been pleasantly surprised as hell to find that, in being focused on telling a story about characters in the real world, it reminds me more than anything of a mid-20th-century novel (IE, before the literary world went down the postmodern formalist rabbit hole).

And it bums me out how rare that is, and that it's something to get excited about.
posted by COBRA! at 12:04 PM on February 7, 2013


Ad hominem > People who have a story to tell write a book, for the most part, not 100% of the time, people write comics to tell comic stories.

And then there are people who like to draw, who find they also want to tell stories. It's only natural for us to start drawing pictures in sequence once our desires get more grandiose than drawing one cool picture. It's the way we've learnt to express ourselves best.

I'm currently knee-deep in a project that started with a single image that came to me in a flash. I drew it, started asking questions, and drew more pages to answer them. I draw, I'm pretty good at it, it's how I communicate. I want to tell a story, and I also want to follow the classic writerly advice of "show, don't tell". The more of my story's world is conveyed without a single line of dialogue or narration, the happier I am.

My next project after this? Also a comic. One I've been gestating for fifteen years. One that's had a visual look as part of it since very early on. It's a dramatically different look from how I normally draw, and that's a significant part of the tone of the story.

I don't know if the stories I want to tell are "comic stories". What does that mean? I have no interest in the conventions of the superhero genre, if that's what you mean. The current piece is reality-fuck SF. The next one is dark urban fantasy. The current one plays with the nature of how time is represented on the page in a way that I can only do in a comic; does that mean it's a "comic story"?
posted by egypturnash at 3:06 PM on February 7, 2013


Ad hominem, I would strongly recommend The Nao of Brown, Dotter of her Father's Eyes, Asterios Polyp and Building Stories as good comics about universal truths that a) don't feature any form of superhero, monster or zombie and b) couldn't be anything other than a comic.

(On a more genre note, I currently like Morning Glories, Scalped and 20th Century Boys)

(But also Eddie Campbell's autobiographical comics are maybe my favourite autobiographical stuff in any medium ever)
posted by Hartster at 3:15 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you write a comic without superheros, or SF without SF tropes, it becomes, almost by definition, an exploration of the form itself. Even if you try to rid yourself of the constraints, you are still trapped by them.

I think this is another example of how critics frame the work. I know plenty of people that have culturally saturated themselves in indie comics or Japanese or European imports; it's quite possible to make a comic in the environment of these other influences, rather than as a reaction against superhero comics.

But if the reader is themselves saturated in superhero comics, then yes, the comic's lack of superheroes will be a defining element for them. But an American watching a French film might view its Frenchness as a novelty; "how unlike Hollywood movies this is," he thinks. But does that mean French films are trapped by Hollywood conventions?
posted by RobotHero at 3:32 PM on February 7, 2013


You guys may be right, I may need to dig deeper and expand my reading past the mostly mainstream. I've already added a bunch to my list to read so thanks for the recommendations.
posted by Ad hominem at 3:38 PM on February 7, 2013


If you write a comic without superheros, or SF without SF tropes, it becomes, almost by definition, an exploration of the form itself.

Naah.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:01 PM on February 7, 2013 [1 favorite]


Less dimissively, the idea that comics without superheroes are weird, is an American one, one perpetuated by lazy mainstream journalism in combination with myopic fan histories of comics that emphasised superheroes over everything else, rather than anything that was ever real.

Meanwhile, everywhere else, superheroes are a niche genre and not very well respected either, roughly on par with Diabolik style fumettis say, disregarding the obvious exceptions.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:13 PM on February 7, 2013


I'm a bit miffed by the way this post was presented, because it lacks the context against which Campbell was responding, perhaps quickest summed up by this Chris Mautner quote:
Of course, the central draw of this volume is Wally Wood. And yes, Wood’s art, particularly in the later “preachy” stories, is exemplary. His rich, intensely detailed scenes, exemplary use of shadow and contrast and curvaceous women are all on ample display here. But you know what? I’m really tired of reading comics where, well, the art is good but the story’s lackluster. Or vice versa. Or having to graciously overlook some rather large defects in order to best appreciate a particular artist’s work. I’ve had it with mitigating my enjoyment of this medium.
That is, Eddie Campbell is reacting against a certain tendency in comics criticism that privileges story/plot over the experience of comics as comics, which is not the same as the old hoary art vs story argument:
The question should not be whether the ostensible ‘story,’ the plot and all its detail, is worth our time; stories tend to all go one way or another. The question should be whether the person or persons performing the story, whether in pictures or speech or dance or song, or all of the above, have made it their own and have made it worthy.
He's arguing that you cannot separate art from writing the way Mautner does if you want to judge a given comic fairly. Of course, as seen in the comments above, many people do judge comics on their plots/stories, comparing them -- often unfairly -- to movies or novels.

People do sometimes compare movies to novels as well (also unfavourably), but we're much more used to take film as its own medium with its own rules, while comics are still too often read more as illustrated stories rather than their own thang.
posted by MartinWisse at 5:48 AM on February 8, 2013


Yeah, but what about that Or vice versa.? What about the rest of the article? To me, the issues of whether art and writing are separate concerns, or whether one of them is more important, are not what Mautner is talking about. He's not advocating some myopic focus on a single element - any single element - of the comics experience over the thing as a whole. He's saying he's not prepared to love something like it's perfect when it has very flawed elements. That's just a normal attitude to most people who take art in any established medium at least a little seriously. We all understand that film has its own set of perfectly legitimate rules and values now, but it doesn't stop us from seeing how it can be relevant to treat the writing, acting, cinematography, directing, music, etc., as separate elements, or from feeling that one of those things can deeply mar a film even if the others are excellent, or the other way round. All Mautner is saying is that standards are a nice thing to have. IMO we could do with a lot more of that, especially among groups of fans who care about mediums, genres and niches that are still chasing the mainstream respectability that certain kinds of art already enjoy.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 10:09 AM on February 9, 2013


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