by T. Hodler
Friday, February 27, 2009
I think I may have killed the comments thread on the last post with my most recent unwieldy contribution, so I thought it might make sense to just copy and paste a big chunk of it into a new post. Longtime readers will remember me making similar arguments in the past, and may get bored. I have no idea if Dan or Frank disagree with me on this, so it shouldn’t be considered Comics Comics dogma or an underlying subtext, except perhaps in my own writing.
I’m basically not a big fan of using the term “literary” when discussing comics, because I think it causes more confusion than it helps. Almost everyone uses “literary” to refer to subject matter, and so they call Chris Ware’s work literary because most of his more recent stories have revolved around the real, mundane lives of ordinary people, but in my mind it makes more sense to use words like “literary” and “novelistic” to refer to the formal qualities of prose [and/or poetry], the effects and techniques that best exemplify the medium of
fiction the written word.
We really need an adjective that can do the same work for comics that “cinematic” does for film, or “literary” does for prose [and poetry], because despite his subject matter, Ware is one of the most purely “comic-book” creators currently working. Nearly everything in his recent books seems to have been conceived in order to take full advantage of the comics medium. It’s really not that different from Frank’s earlier comment about Alan Moore: “he wrote Watchmen to highlight how the medium of comics is unique. That it would be impossible to film the series. That he used device after device within the medium to show off its power.”
You see the same thing in movies, but people don’t seem to have any trouble separating subject matter from formal techniques there. Eric Rohmer‘s movies are just as cinematic as Steven Spielberg’s, despite the fact that the first director generally makes films about people talking and the other generally makes movies about sharks and aliens and Nazis.
To a certain extent, this is all a matter of taste. If a reader is more interested in comedy or satire or thrillers than “slice-of-life” fiction (for lack of a better term), than they’re going to prefer Quimby the Mouse or Take the Money and Run to Jimmy Corrigan or Crimes and Misdemeanors. Personally, I love the most recent works by Ware and Clowes (though I do selfishly agree that I’d like to see more comics from Clowes), but I can understand why others might not. Sometimes I’m more in the mood for “Needledick the Bug-Fucker” than Ice Haven myself, and pull out my old Eightball issues.
But I think it’s a mistake for people to use the word “literary” pejoratively as a way to close off or shrink the artistic territory “appropriate” for comics. Imagine if comic book subject matter had never spread into new areas after 1939. No Crumb, no Woodring, no Tezuka,
no Kirby, no Clowes, no Altergott, no Hernandez, no blah blah blah.
UPDATE: I do agree with last post’s commentators to a certain degree, though, and want to make that clear. There are many comics made these days that I think are too “literary” (or too “cinematic”), but they aren’t those created by artists like Ware or Clowes, who strive to take full advantage of the comics form’s potential. Mostly they’re created by younger artists, who haven’t adequately thought through their material. Often there’s no apparent reason the stories had to be comics, as opposed to a prose story or play or something. But it’s not necessarily the subject matter that makes them overly literary, it’s the execution.