Interviews and Autodidacts Notebook
by Jeet Heer
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
Autodidacts. I often think William Blake is the prototype for many modern cartoonists. Blake was a working class visionary who taught himself Greek and Hebrew, an autodidact who created his own cosmology which went against the grain of the dominant Newtonian/Lockean worldview of his epoch. The world of comics has had many such ad hoc theorists and degree-less philosophers: Burne Hogarth, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Gil Kane, Neal Adams, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Gary Panter, Lynda Barry, Howard Chaykin, Chester Brown, Dave Sim, Alan Moore. These are all freelance scholars who are willing to challenge expert opinion with elaborately developed alternative ideas. The results of their theorizing are mixed. On the plus side: you can learn more about art history by listening to Gary Panter and Art Spiegelman talk than from reading a shelf-full of academic books; Robert Crumb’s Genesis deserves to be seen not just as an important work of art but also a significant commentary on the Bible; Lynda Barry’s ideas about creativity strike me as not just true but also profound and life-enhancing. On the negative side: Dave Sim’s forays into gender analysis have not, um, ah, been, um, very fruitful; and while Neal Adams drew a wicked cool Batman, I’m not willing to give credence to his theories of an expanding earth if it means rejecting the mainstream physics of the last few centuries. Sorry Neal!
Interviews Versus Art. This strain of autodidactic cartoonists explains why the comics world is blessed with many great talkers, artists whose conversations and interviews overflow with tart observations and juicy anecdotes. All the autodidacts I’ve mentioned above give great interviews. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that for some of them, the interview is their best form: I’d rather read a long, juicy interview with Gil Kane than any comics by him. The same principal applies to Howard Chaykin and Alan Moore. To me, these cartoonists are all in the line of Dr. Johnson, whose conversations as recorded by Boswell are great but whose writing is hard to slog through. By contrast, while Art Spiegelman is a great talker I’d prefer a new comic from him to a new interview. The same is true of Chris Ware, Seth and other comparable artists. That’s a genuine divide: some artists are smarter than their works. Other artists are equally smarter or smarter, but their work is even more intelligent and meaningful than their articulate opinions and observations.
The Importance of Interviews. I was initially annoyed at Ben Schwartz for including interviews in his Best American Comics Criticism volume, but upon reflection I realized that he was a cagier editor than I would have been. The simple fact is that because of the intellectual poverty of most writing on comics, infected as it is with fannish boosterism and journalistic glibness, the interview form has been the crucial venue for comics criticism and comics history. As I said in the previous post, without all those great interviews with Kane, Crumb, etc. our sense of the history and canon of comics would be very different.
Styles of Interviewing. In my forthcoming introduction to the Inkstuds volume, I take a stab at describing different styles of interviewing by comparing Robin McConnell with Gary Groth. An excerpt: “One way to describe McConnell is to say that he’s the opposite of Gary Groth. Whereas Groth prefers to go into an interview full of research, reading not just a cartoonists entire oeuvre but also as many of the earlier interviews as he can find, McConnell takes a deceptively casual tack, winging his way like a student at an oral exam who is willing to make up for in gusto what he lacks in preparation…. [My] appreciation for McConnell grew when I started to realize that there was a motive behind his madness, a method to his impromptu chatter. The great thing about McConnell, I realized, is that he’s extremely skilled in putting people at ease. When you talk to him, you don’t feel like he’s showing off or trying to trick you or trip you.” I would love to see a literary theorist take up this comparative approach to interviews. In particularly it might be fruitful to compare the interview styles of the Paris Review, Playboy and Rolling Stone magazine.
The Major Interviewers. From that same intro, my list of great comics interviewers: Verne Greene, John Benson, Arn Saba, Gary Groth, Todd Hignite, and Robin McConnell. Based on her interviews with Al Columbia and Dan Clowes, I’m willing to add Nicole Rudick to the list. Who am I missing?
Labels: Alan Moore, Arn Saba, Art Spiegelman, Burne Hogarth, Chester Brown, Dave Sim, Gary Groth, Gary Panter, Gil Kane, Heer notebook, Howard Chaykin, Jack Kirby, John Benson, Lynda Barry, Neal Adams, Nicole Rudick, R. Crumb, Robin McConnell, Steve Ditko, Todd Hignite, Verne Greene