A Possibly Tedious Clarification
by T. Hodler
Sunday, September 16, 2007
Sorry if this post is boring, but I want to highlight one recent comment from Jon Hastings, partly because it makes a really good point, and partly because it gives me an opportunity to make clear something that I haven’t been trying to say over the past few days. Hastings writes:
I find myself agreeing to all of your points, but can’t help being, emotionally at least, on Noah [Berlatsky]‘s “side”. For me at least, there’s so much baggage from old internet arguments over the merits of super-hero comics vs. alt/art comics that I find it is really easy to make the kinds of mostly baseless, sweeping judgments that Noah is making here. My beef was never really with alt/art cartoonists, but rather with those comics critics (self-appointed or otherwise) who I saw as using the work of those alt/art cartoonists to attack my beloved super-hero books.
I’m not at all unsympathetic to this view, and couldn’t be less interested in using “serious” comics as a cudgel against other kinds of comic book stories. I think it’s understandable for long-time comics readers to occasionally get a bit defensive when it sometimes seems like only relatively straight, self-evidently serious works approaching “proper” subject matter (Maus, Persepolis, Fun Home, etc.) are seen as respectable in the wider world. (I don’t think this is actually altogether true, mind you, but it can feel that way.) Maus, at least, I think fully deserves its high reputation (I haven’t read the other two, which I guess should be my next homework assignment), but really, this is one more reason to say God bless Robert Crumb, the one artist to have broken through who can’t by any means be separated from the comic book’s anarchic and fantastic roots.
Over on the Fantagraphics blog, the great designer Jacob Covey also commented on this sort-of-stupid blog fight, and his take is really pretty smart, though I’ll admit I had to read it a couple times before I got some of it. Covey writes, “The subject is ‘art comics’ versus superhero comics– a distinction I already find vague and silly seeing how the two ideas rely on a black and white separation though I see a vast overlap. Not to mention that this [precludes] the one genre from ever being considered art, which is a bit presumptuous.” I agree with that comment entirely, except to say that I wasn’t trying to argue that “art” comics are inherently better than superheroes.
Covey also very kindly describes Comics Comics as “the definitive fringe art-comics periodical”, while admitting that with PictureBox as a whole, he can’t help but feel “there’s a bit of validity-through-outsiderness going on at times.” I can’t speak for PictureBox (though I imagine Dan might take some issue with that), but at least in terms of Comics Comics, that couldn’t be further from our intention. That’s why we’ve covered so many “mainstream” subjects in the first place, from Dick Ayers and Steve Gerber to Alex Raymond and the Masters of American Comics show. Whether or not we’re successfully realizing our goals is of course for others to judge.
In his second post, Berlatsky made at least one point that I really agree with: “The cultural space within which a work is produced, and the way it is received, has a lot to do with a medium’s health.” If critics are capable of doing anything at all (and they may not be), they can help shape that cultural space. There are many great traditions in comics, from the Harvey Kurtzman legacies of comic satire and unglamorous war and historical stories, to superhero tales (which at their best can be wonderfully surreal and pregnant with political subtext and sometimes just silly fun), to less easily classifiable work like that of Fort Thunder and Jim Woodring, and a whole lot more besides. All the various contributions of Japan and Europe and elsewhere should be included, and yes, I think that comics that deal with real life in an at least somewhat realistic and serious manner should be, too. Few readers will, or should, find all kinds of comics equally to their taste, but the cultural space I would like to encourage has a place for all of them, and will judge each work on its own individual merits, not on arbitrary generic guidelines.
Again, I apologize for this kind of boring stuff, but I don’t want to be misunderstood, and thought it might be good to have this on the record.