… But I Sure Can Pontificate About Them!


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.

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121 Responses to “… But I Sure Can Pontificate About Them!”
  1. Kioskerman says:

    Does Powr Mastrs have anything to do with Path Masters, the Beatles album?

    Another thing: why did C.F drop the “e”.

    I need to reveal this misteries.

  2. Kioskerman says:

    errata: I meant “Past Masters”

  3. Dan Nadel says:


    I couldn’t agree more. Throwing around “literary” to refer to the merits of a comic, or even its genre has long been a thorn in the side of actual analysis. There’s more to say here (and you’ve always parsed genres/terminologies very well, so you should expand on this, young man!) but I need to keep packing. And then writing.

    Kioskerman: Neither question you asked has an answer.

  4. knut says:

    You are flirting with the concept of “pure comics”, or at least the notion that there are aspects about comics that are clearly form-specific. I think comics can incorporate approaches that could be deemed “literary”, or “cinematic”, or “painterly”, or even “lyrical”. However the approach that is the most striking is the one that leads us to feel as though it’s “pure comics.”

    You’re right though, they stopped writing adjectives before before comics analysts were born.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Generously argued by Stephen in the previous thread. As Knut said, Manga absorbed cinematic technique a long time ago, and very successfully I’d say, and that may explain why when i feel like a dose of heroic comics I reach for something like Kentar? Miura’s Beserk- which rules balls over any U.S produced superhero comic I’ve read. It absolutely rips off the page, and while it is very filmic, it is also a very “pure” comic. Also, let’s not forget that all Hollywood blockbusters begin their lives as comics. They just call them storyboards.

    Sorry to see more Clowes and Ware bashing here, personally I’ve yet to be disappointed by either (also- i thought Clowes recent lack of productivity was down to illness? I’m sure someone knows better than I). I agree with TH above, Ware is as “comics” a creator as there is working today. I’m not trying to place anything off limits by saying i don’t welcome the literisation of comics, and it certainly wasn’t meant to be a criticism of those who incorporate “real life” subject matter. Rather its a weighting of comics too much in the direction of writing i object to, and specifically in the case of Moore this forcing of comics into an omnivorous historical continuum with folk tales at its root. There is a sense in which his liquefaction of history is very now, very internet, but IMO these are the heavy handed gestures of someone who sees themselves as a legitimiser. And this stuff is unreadable, swollen, turgid.

    To go back to Ware, and TH’s points above, he has somewhat opened himself up for this kind of criticism. If you read his introduction to his “Best American Comics” anthology, he directly advocates comics moving into a “literary” position, and says we are currently at a transitional point, hence the preponderance of autobiographical work both in the anthology and alt comics in general (“Write what you know”). Ware says we should accept these “growing pains”; personally i think, without levelling this at any specific cartoonists, a diaristic “the very substance of my life is art” approach is another dead end. It’s a cheap way of having an audience “relate”. I was disappointed with the introduction (Ware is a fine writer in his own right IMO) and his selections.

    Lest this all sound too gloomy this is the most exciting time for comics I can remember no matter how thin you slice it. And that adjective…”cartoonic”?

  6. T. Hodler says:

    Good comments. I completely agree that comics storytelling can usefully incorporate elements that are cinematic and/or literary and/or painterly, etc., and I’m not advocating for any kind of “purity” on that basis. Which probably wasn’t clear. But I do think that some creators don’t incorporate those extra-cartoonic (nice one!) elements as fully as they should. Miura adopts cinematic techniques for sure, but he usually makes them cartoonic. They don’t overwhelm the work. Or in the world of superhero comics, Jack Kirby clearly was influenced by film, but he used cinematic techniques, and wasn’t enslaved by them. In contrast, a lot of superhero artists today are, as you imply, glorified storyboard artists.

  7. T. Hodler says:

    Oh, and I haven’t read Ware’s introduction to that anthology, so I can’t comment on that. I’ll take a look this weekend.

  8. knut says:

    I don’t know what the Comics Comics crew’s stance is on “Graphic Novel era” Eisner is, but I’ve always said that he does stuff in those comics that are very form-specific to the stage. I really can’t think of any other cartoonist that has taken the same approach. Eisner uses “the spotlight” in a way that I’ve never seen another cartoonist try.

    But yeah, the problem with “pure comics” talk is that it’s bound to ultimately freak out anyone who isn’t purposefully striving for “pure comics”. Like you said, it’s OK. It’s just one way not the only way. Nobody needs to freak out.

  9. Dan Nadel says:

    A while back something like this came up and Kevin H. very smartly objected to the idea of “pure comics.” Cartoonic is kinda nice. Notions of purity, which is definitely not where Tim (or Knut) is heading, are pretty whack. It’s kinda like Clement Greenberg rattling on about “pure painting”. It’s immediately limiting. Of course, what “cartoonic” does imply is some sort of criteria — some intrinsic structural elements of comics that, when used, allow the story/page/medium to really “work” on its own terms. So what are those elements or those terms? We could enumerate them here, I suppose, or maybe we all already know. Or maybe that’s just heading into McCloud territory, which is also rather dull. And then of course, there are plenty of comics that, while great as visuals, aren’t terribly effective uses of the medium. I think of EC-era Wood, here, for example, even though I’m in love with his knotted drawings and crammed panels. It’s excellent visual narrative, but not really good comics-as-comics. I dunno. Frank, wanna weigh in here? Anonymous, who are you?

  10. Dan Nadel says:

    Oh, and I’ve enjoyed Eisner’s use of the medium in the 80s, but found the writing so hokey that ultimately I just haven’t gone back to it.

  11. Frank Santoro says:

    shit, don’t say “pure cartooning” or Kevin H will put a bullet in your inbox.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Please stop discussing Ware and Clowes. Discuss “new” artists instead in this regard. What are the “youth” doing?

  13. T. Hodler says:

    Like I said before, I’m really not advocating for any kind of “pure” cartooning, and don’t really even know what that would mean. I’m just saying that using the word “literary” to talk about comics is usually confusing and misleading.

    @Dan: Personally, I don’t think making rules about what is or is not cartoonic would be of much use, just as I wouldn’t be interested in enumerating what is and is not literary or cinematic. I do think it can be fun to pick out examples of things that can’t be done in anything but comics, though. As soon as it turns into a set of rules, it stops being fun. To me. Although sometimes I like reading other people’s rules. So just ignore me.

  14. T. Hodler says:

    Oh, and Anonymous: I’m not the one who brought Ware and Clowes up. A pair(?) of anonymous comment-leavers did. I like your idea, though. Why don’t you go first?

  15. Frank Santoro says:

    that last post wasn’t me. Really.

    anyways. I’ve been thinking a lot about “mapping”

    How many cartoonists use maps, (Ware, Shaw, even Kirby in his diagrams of like the baxter building)

    To me, it’s the movement of the icons / symbols on the page. Think Yokoyama. It’s the closest thing i’ve seen to a NEW synthesis of the cinematic and the literary. It reads like a MAP to me.

  16. knut says:

    I don’t know where to begin a list of the various devices but I can say for sure that Dash Shaw has been adding new ones to the lexicon with his work on Bodyworld and Bottomless Belly Button. Specifically with his approach to conveying physical sensation.

  17. DerikB says:

    Gotta appreciate the shout-out to Eric Rohmer, one of my favorites.

    Thinking about comics that could be described as “literary”, first to mind is Posy Simmonds’ work. At least “literary” as in using words in a literary way.

  18. T. Hodler says:

    Rohmer’s great.

    And Posy Simmonds is an excellent call. Once before I named Matt Groening and Lynda Barry as two of the most literary cartoonists around, because of the role language played in their strips. In a weird way, too, by my definition the most literary cartoonist alive might be Gerald Jablonski!

  19. Anonymous says:

    OK – I was the guy who brought up Clowes and Ware in the previous post (I’m not the other ‘anon’ in this comments box), and maybe I was being a little rash. It’s personal – their earlier stuff was so stunning to me, maybe I’m just a little sad that I’m not getting the same thrills from them any more (and in a way I may be as bad as those guys who cling to the heroes who cheered them up way back when they kids).

    Which made me realise it could be an age thing. After all, if you’ve wrote the screenplays to two movies or had universal acclaim from the most respected ‘literary’ critics, I shouldn’t expect them to keep doing ‘Needledick the Bug-Fucker’. Even Crumb has let ‘maturity’ enter his work (and also puts out less pamphlet comics). Kirby or Ditko are another matter (if not the ‘opposite’ of ‘maturing’ cartoonists as they cranked up the crankiness), but that’s what makes them endlessly fascinating.

    Spot on about superhero comics being glorified storyboards now – but if your franchise has the potential to make a billion in the space of a season via games and movies, it’s not surprising. I remember a lot of people acclaiming the movie of ‘Sin City’ because it aped the comic so much – but for me it just accenuated weaknesses that the vitality of the drawing made up for.

    I’ve always thought Eisner sucked – you wouldn’t catch Chester Gould or Caniff doing those pretentious, maudlin mensch melodramas…

    Moore’s been carping on about wanting out of comics for years – comparing those 80s ‘Swamp Thing’s with his current almanacs and grimoires, I think he should move on. His love of the medium just doesn’t register anymore.

    As for Lynda Barry – ‘What It Is’ made nearly everyone’s ‘ten best’ – and I still think she’s underrated!

  20. Anonymous says:

    ps. Yokoyama is indeed a new ‘map’, but so is Lynda Barry. My problem with Ware could be it’s graphic design aspects – as with Moore and his dialogue/stage direction, it’s so tightly controlled that I can’t feel it ‘breathing’ anymore (jeez – the struggle for a decent critical language!). Schulz may have had that tight grip on his material, but he didn’t beat me over the head with it.

  21. Anonymous says:

    DN, I am Anonymous and I am legion! As we can see from the last couple of threads here. Given things are getting more than a little confusing, my name is W. Edwards. Up to the Alan Moore post I'd only shot my keyboard off here when I've had something nicer to say. I really appreciate this blog & attendant commentary so I should stop being cowardly and sign in…

    Ware and Clowes, well, they come up don't they? They have again. And so. They're unavoidable, looming. As Crumb or Kirby might be in other contexts. People like to talk about them, and increasingly to bash them. Familiarity breeds contempt (this isn't aimed at the anon above). Generally speaking some of the more visible young US cartoonists take a direct and less "meta" influence from heroic comics. They're a good deal sloppier and hairier. Also the influence of computer games has become a factor for the first time with the current generation of creators, a particular "gaming" mode of narrative as discovery. Which might tie in with the "mapping" FS is talking about above, though not w/ the artists he mentions. But these are very big generalisations.

    I think Matt Furie’s Boy’s Club is a good example of an autobiographical comic (of sorts) by a younger dude that retains a certain “real life” veracity whilst being very cartoonic. His drawing of limbs is really exquisite as well, though that’s veering entirely off topic…


  22. Anonymous says:

    Ware and Clowes go on the road in the tradition of Martin and Lewis, Abbott and Costello, Flatt and Scruggs, look for them at the Howard Johnson’s ballroom off Exit 17 this Saturday at 8pm. Early seniors show at 6. Don’t miss it!

  23. Isaac says:

    I’m coming late to this conversation, but I think it’s worth insisting that “literary” does not apply only to prose works. It applies to literature, which also includes poetry, for sure, and theater as well. (Shakespeare’s plays are literary works, right?)

    If a novel does something that’s “literary,” that’s somewhat different from doing something “novelistic.”

    If literature can include theater, I don’t see why it can’t include film. If it can include two performance media with visual elements, I don’t see why it can’t include a written / drawn/ printed medium that includes a visual element.

    But, you know, as Dylan Horrocks would probably insist, it makes a lot more sense to think about the usefulness of a word like this—maybe a limited usefulness, but still one that can teach us things—rather than drawing lines in the sand and proclaiming that particular words can’t be used to describe particular kinds of works.

  24. T. Hodler says:

    Isaac: You’re totally right about poetry being literature; excluding it was an oversight. And I would also agree that plays in their written form are a kind of literature. (Though this is where it starts to get tricky.) That’s basically where I think “literature” ends for me, though I know there are plenty of people (including you, presumably) who would disagree. Performed plays are something different to me. Films are something different. (Screenplays can be literary, though.) Songs are not literature, but lyrics are. I know everyone can take, and many have taken, issue with this kind of determination, but for me, the term “literary” loses most of its usefulness past this point.

  25. T. Hodler says:

    Or I should say, “literary” makes most sense to me when it is applied to language. And by language I mean words. Music, sculpture, painting, juggling: these are different things, though of course artists can–and do– mix forms all the time. I don’t want to get to deep into this, because that’s when it starts to get dull. I’m really just tired of people saying that comics are bad because they’re literary when they really seem to mean they don’t like comics about people who aren’t hitting each other.

  26. Anonymous says:

    I was rereading a ‘literary’ but ‘pure comics’ classic just after my last comment:

    ‘Binky Brown Meets The Virgin Mary’ – beautifully written and full of indelible images that manage to be sad, funny and inspiring.

    And what about S Clay Wilson’s strangely poetic use of dialogue?

  27. Anonymous says:

    Is Stan Lee literary? His most well loved characters are as known for their dialogue as their look (which has never quite translated to their filmed versions). Consider The Thing – he became a kind of abstract graphic humanised by his wonderful dialogue… Michael Chiklis didn’t have a chance!

  28. Anonymous says:

    wait. who is Michael Chiklis?

  29. Austin English says:

    But isn’t it dumb in Watchmen when there’s stuff like…y’know, a panel with a pretty girl and the caption will be all “She was a real KNOCKOUT…” and then then next panel is some guy getting punched in the face??

  30. ULAND says:

    What page is that on?

  31. T. Hodler says:

    @Anonymous: Yes, to a certain extent Stan Lee is literary. Most comics are. People often use “literary” as a synonym for good, but I think that’s only obviously true when you’re talking about literature. In other media, being literary is neither good nor bad necessarily; it’s only interesting. A film can be literary, but it’s more important that it’s cinematic. A comic can be literary but it’s more important that it’s “cartoonic”, or whatever word people end up using. (I like cartoonic, but we don’t need to end the nominations right here, if anyone has a better idea…) For example, Red Meat is a particularly literary comic strip — there’s almost nothing “cartoonic” about it.

  32. T. Hodler says:

    @Austin: I haven’t read Watchmen in years, but the last time I did, I remember thinking there were a lot more impressive techniques used than clumsy ones. Which isn’t to say that moments like the one you cite aren’t there. Sometimes an innovator’s techniques can look pretty awkward in a really short time if his/her methods are adopted and absorbed by others, as pretty clearly happened with Moore. That said, even if you’re right, it’s just another wrinkle: some techniques are only clumsily cartoonic, just as there are novelists who struggle to achieve literary effects that are beyond their powers.

  33. Frank Santoro says:

    austin- yah but remember those devices are 20 yrs old now, were fresher then, and those odd transitions often set up more elegant ones. jab, cross, uppercut

  34. Anonymous says:

    Moore’s best book was From Hell, I think – not least because Eddie Campbell really kept a handle on Moore’s usual ‘tricks’. Was probably his most ‘British’ work, too.

  35. Frank Santoro says:

    did we come up with a word, a comics equivalent to “cinematic” yet?

  36. by Michael DeForge says:

    how about “McCloudy”?

  37. DerikB says:

    In the poetic literary vein: Warren Craghead, especially How To Be Everywhere. One of the best comics of the past 2 years. I’ve still not managed to articulate its awesomeness.

    Tim: I’m going to have to look up Jablowski. Never read him.

  38. Frank Santoro says:


  39. Austin English says:

    Yeah, I know. I was just jokin’— I think Watchmen is fine, but it’s just not for me.

    I think John Hanciewicz said it best about Moore: “a good comics STYLIST.” He’s fun—like Battlestar Galactica! But I’d feel funny if Pauline Kael was like “Battlestar galactica—the best the filmed arts have to offer!”

  40. T. Hodler says:

    @Derik: I can’t wait to hear what you think of Jablonski.

    @Austin: Well, I think Alan Moore is better than Battlestar Galactica, and Pauline Kael loved to praise trash far more than it deserved, but I hear you, and you’re right.

  41. Anonymous says:

    Well, I’ve heard Frank Miller compared to Pekinpah (he’s more Joel Schumacer, even if his actual movies are worse).

    How about Ditko and Fritz Lang?
    Kirby and Howard Hawks (with 22nd century special effects added)?

  42. T. Hodler says:

    Tom Spurgeon is having some browser issues and can’t comment directly, but he wrote in to say, “I’d go with pictographic long before I’d go with cartoonic, just because I think pictograph a better rough description of comics fundamental building blocks than cartoon is.”

  43. Frank Santoro says:

    Pictographic works. “Cartoon” implies exaggeration, though – which is important. Fumetti can be pictographic. But wouldn’t be “cartooned” in a drawing sense.

  44. Anonymous says:

    Pictographic already has dibs on- it more properly describes a pictorial language such as hieroglyphs. Which has links to comics, but cannot be considered comics specific. As FS says above, a mode of exaggeration as well as reduction need be implied, as well as a certain “movement” I think. I wasn’t being entirely serious with “cartoonic”, but maybe if I say it enough it might start to work! Haha. Good discussion on these last couple of posts…

  45. ULAND says:

    But the pictographic can be exaggerated , while the cartoonic can not be not exaggerated, or at least probably would not be, based on associations people would likely make with the word.
    – I’m not sure what Hankiewicz by way of Austin means when they call Moore a mere “stylist” . I can only guess that it might have to do with Moores’ use of pretty obvious strategies, or clear use of various devices. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, or less artful than what have you. But yeah, I guess I’d just ask Austin to clarify.
    But what do I know? – I think Battlestar is a pretty great show, regardless of what Kael might think.

  46. ULAND says:

    – I don’t think many would argue that Moore is the best comics has to offer, but I think they would argue that he achieved a certain mastery of the form, by which he was able to get across very well what he wanted to. I’m not always in sympathy with what he wants to get across, but I love how he does it so well.
    I think that ability alone transcends “style”.
    Sorry, still can’t get over that..

  47. Austin English says:

    John was making that point on a panel I was on with him…he was saying how there were a lot of masters of the form in comics writing—people who could write a pleasing sentence–but a very poor number of writers in comics who wrote about things that resonated a little bit more with our thoughts and emotions.

    John may have had an entirely different meaning but that’s the point I think he was making–and I totally agree with him.

    As I type this, I’ve wrung up 3 people for Watchmen here at the comics store.

  48. Austin English says:

    I should add—I’ve been leafing through this great Scorchy Smoith collection for months now, which I guess could also be called the work of a “stylist.” but something about it sets it apart (for me). the drawing ois so beautiful, and it has a certain x factor to it. It’s (again, to me) so much more powerful then moore, even though you could easily argue that it’s more goofy.

  49. Anonymous says:

    Uland, the semantics are a little muddy here, but to me pictographic implies the directly representational, the reduced, whereas cartoon implies caricature or exaggeration. To clarify this distinction- cartoon or cartoonish can be pejorative when applied to a serious work, “This is a mere cartoon of…”, “This rendition of… is cartoonish”, whereas “This is a mere pictograph of…” wouldn’t work, as it would imply a direct, essentialist representation. Maybe this distinction doesn’t favour the coinage, but as i said it was intended playfully. Nonetheless i think a new word or conjunction would be preferable to an extant one. Suggestions?

  50. Frank Santoro says:

    Dylan Williams is gonna freak out if you call Scorchy Smith goofy.

  51. Austin English says:

    Ha. i said you COULD call if goofy! i dont find it goofy at all…I find Moore highly goofy. I’m not articulate enough to explain the difference.

  52. Anonymous says:

    Also I think pictographic implies a representation that is designed to transcend or stand in stead of logographic language rather than work alongside it.

  53. Anonymous says:

    How about ‘hieroglyphic’? ie. where the story would cease to exist if the words and images were separated?

    This may be so much of E.C. seems very clunky to me – all that needless exposition – “You realise the bottom of your legs have been chewed off”, “The guilty man ran quickly through the door” etc. May be why a lot of their artists were more ‘illustrators’ than ‘cartoonists’ (with some very notable exceptions, of course).

  54. Anonymous says:

    Actually, come to think of it, Moore seems more influenced by E.C. than anything else in comics – I know ‘Watchmen’ has a lot of early ‘Mad’ elements flying around in it.

  55. ULAND says:

    Austin- I think I understand what you’re trying to say. I don’t think Moore is interested in the personal, or the highly subjective world of “emotion”. The personal in Moore’s comics seems to be a vector for bigger concepts to play out, or basically a position from which to experience these larger, extra-personal forces do their thing.
    I guess I’d differ from you when it comes to suggesting that one is inherently more valuable or interesting than the other.Both can be awful. One can be so high-concept that the human aspect is steam-rolled over, but the other can be so diffuse or subjective that there is nothing to hold onto to connect it to shared experience.

    W.E- I’m not sure we’ll be able to come up with a term, or set of terms, that isn’t problematic. “Pictographic” , I think, could include “cartoon”, which I think originally meant a reduced or spare representation.You’re right though, that it implies something pejorative, but I think that- an exaggerated representation- is ultimately an implication of the pictographic, if that makes sense. Pictograph isn’t going to describe how it looks. I think it’s always going to require some elaboration if it came into use. In other words, I don’t think the implication of “pictograph” is straight representation. It’s always going to require us to describe the nature of the pictograph, but all of those descriptors could fall under the umbrella of “pictograph”, imo.
    I could ramble about this forever and still not feel like I’m correct about any of it though..

  56. Jason Overby says:

    I get what Austin’s saying re:Moore, and it’s what I was talking about in the other thread: there’s so much great stuff that Moore’s doing that it makes it incredibly annoying when he hits you over the head with showy formal tricks that are really just visual puns. And, I mean, Watchmen’s pretty entertaining, but it’s tacky as hell – Moore doesn’t have a subtle enough aesthetic sense to make superheroes sublime in their lameness – it’s not like it’s Gravity’s Rainbow or anything…

    And cartoonic sounds good to me. Pictographic strikes me as pretentious and both imply a reduction to some essential form you can plot within the comic’s structure.

    Dylan Horrocks is all about maps!

  57. ULAND says:

    Nightowl in his apartment and Silk Stockings in the nursing home are pretty lame. Almost literally lame.
    Rorschach is a mentally ill homeless guy.
    But I don’t think he hates superheroes, or did then.
    I think playing that too far would entail the superheroes losing power. They aren’t lame if they can manage to do fantastic things, and a comic about heroes who can’t do fantastic things is basically no longer a superhero book, or can’t really comment on what superheroes mean, or were meant to mean, anyhow. I think some of the larger themes of the book are handled with subtlety, but the themes are not subtle . It’s about superheroes.
    There’s nothing subtle about what they do.
    So yeah, I disagree.

  58. Jason Overby says:

    I’m using “lame” to mean something that I didn’t articulate very well. Watchmen operates how it has to operate, but, to me, the ultimate stumbling block to be really interested in Moore is how seriously he takes himself and his subject matter. A subtle aesthetic sense would be what, for instance, Panter or Ben Jones have where they can draw crummy pictures that somehow transcend their shittiness and become beautiful. Lame, I guess, means crummy, ratty, shitty, but it can be sublime. Watchmen is lame in that it has no sense of irony, but not in my ultra-specific, personal way of using the term. I’m arguing with myself and derailing this thread furthur…

  59. ULAND says:

    You could always just read a Ben Jones comic, I guess.

  60. pernicious puns says:

    i love that scene in “watchmen” where li’l bloody and “sweet” chubby cheeks get in an argument and end up dismantling pullapart boy while the tin stars cackle and then roar-shaque pulls all his guts out and clamps jumper cables onto them and then gets an arrow through his head and runs down a hill and then they find a miniature horse and disembowel it. or the jellyfish sex scene, or the part where he finally meets the dude he’s been travelling to see, his long time buddy, and there’s a dog running around the dock over multiple panels and then the ship sails away into the whole grid of the page. totally maps.

    is this the blog where i request the complete karl wirsum video set? he is my favorite cartoonist, a real KNOCKOUT. puns are the blood of the world. punning is the fruit cobbler in the over-stuffed refrigerator of high-tech cartoon wizardry.

  61. Austin English says:

    hello jesse.

  62. Anonymous says:

    Tee hee. This shit is funny! Uland, not to be combative, we’re at x-purposes a bit here. I don’t think cartoon implies pejorative. That’s about context. Pictographic could include some aspects of cartooning. but it does not extend to logographic language working with imagery. Think of public signage. you have the pictograph, and the words. The pictograph is there so anyone can understand- the sign is legible sans words. A pictograph may be part of a sequence, but it is also a static, self contained signifier. Otl Aicher and Gerd Arntz are not cartoonists. Their work is not cartooning. It is pictographic. Even if i were to agree that pictographic is a broader umbrella term that might include cartooning, we are looking for a coinage that is comics specific, which pictographic is not. How many times have you used the term “pictographist” in your own writing? As J.O said, that would seem a very “heavy” term, and thereby forgoes a celebratory sense of comics as “low” art, which I think is important. But how many times have you used, “cartoonist”?

    To bring things back to Moore, he seems to have seen an opportunity to articulate his own ideas of a historiographic narrative continuum in heroic comics. His approach is somewhat didactic, but he has an audience. J.O mentions the contrasting examples of Ben Jones and Gary Panter, both of whom have a kind of pan-cultural satori that seems to drop out of nowhere. There is the post-modern cultural flux, without the attendant self-consciousness. They let comics be comics. Both have met with western (read capitalist) culture in their own fashion, yet they work outside the mainstream. They also have an audience, though it is a smaller one. I’d say their approach was more nourishing than Moore’s. But it is inclusive in a comparable way. It has a breadth. Maps dude…; )


  63. Frank Santoro says:

    good god, what is goin on? I go for a nite out, and a walk the next day and now I have no idea what is going on. do I have to read all those comments…man… how did Gary and Ben make it into this discussion? is that legal?

  64. Ken Parille says:

    “Literary comic” is a reasonable designation to me because it is modeled on the widely used term “literary fiction,” which is more of a genre category than a claim of merit — of “literary” worth. Todd is right that the term causes confusion, but so does a term like graphic novel, especially when used to describe something that’s an autobiography or a collection of short stories in comic form – neither of those are really a novel. I think the confusion comes when people assume that someone who is using the phrase is making a claim about value; they may be, but it doesn’t seem necessary to assume that that’s always the case.

    Dan may be correct that the term has been a “thorn in the side of analysis,” but it’s not clear to me how it would have been an actual impediment. Unfortunately, all terms can be used as substitutes for real analysis.

    I am sure “literary fiction” has its origins in some kind of anti-genre snobbery, but it has moved beyond that meaning for me. It’s useful, but flawed. To find a single term that means “a comic that extensively uses the medium’s formal properties” or something like that would be hard . . . To some people, it still might imply a value hierarchy, one that puts comics that don’t use these properties below those that do.

  65. Anonymous says:

    Moore does have a sense of irony (the whole ending of Watchmen is a gag – the arrogant megalomaniac who wants to save the world with mass murder).

    Being British, I can see where Moore’s coming from – it’s a very different kind of irony, and his ‘post-modern’ tricks come a from a distinctly British fandom – one with close ties to ‘New Worlds’ style sci-fi fiction, cosmic horror, surreal humour, occultism, prog rock, hippie/left-wing politics, porn (in the 70s, UK comic shops also specialised the above).

    We never really had an ‘underground’ like the U.S. – or the vertically intergrated entertainment industry that the U.S. had since Superman came on the scene. I think a lot of Moore’s gripes about movies have a lot to do with globalisation erasing these cultural idiosyncrasies. I’m sure a large UK comic shop is selling pretty much the same stuff as a U.S. one these days.

    Today’s ‘Observer’ newspaper has a profile on him – his relatively high level of fame here is more due to his reputation as a ‘cultural’ figure – I noticed U.S. articles focus more on his relationship with the big comics companies and their movie tie-ins. Here, he’s seen more for his thematic associations with other cultural figures like novelists etc. The big fanbase he devloped here was largely due to him bringing those elements into an (then) unlikely format. Especially when you consider that British comics then were just 2000ad, Warrior (an ‘adult’ variation and ‘naughty boy’ comics for kids)

  66. Frank Santoro says:

    that was a good one. okay, now I think I know what is going on.

  67. Anonymous says:

    On a side note, I think his little beef with Grant Morrison is how carefully Morrison ‘packaged’ these elements for U.S. consumption.

    Bryan Talbot is another one with very ‘British’ non-comic influences all over his work – and he has a much higher rep here than he does in the U.S.

    We also have far too much emphasis on ‘literature’ with our movies (stage actors, dickens, Shakespeare etc), but that’s another story…

    As a Brit, part of the initial thrill of American comics was precisely their ‘American-ess’: eg. Crumb’s love of pre-war music and burlesque humour, Chris Ware’s contrast of ‘ragtime’ beauty with shopping mall blandness, Jack Kirby and Joe Kubert’s cigar-chomping sarges, Spain and Wilson with their bikers and lowlifes, Stan lee’s wise-cracking heroes.

    A primo example of this divide is the movie versions of Batman. The latest – by a somewhat detached British writer/director – is very ‘European’ (even ‘Weimar’) in its plot and characterisations. The earlier, American versions can’t quite escape ‘believing’ in the franchise as an American institution. I bet the upcoming ‘Watchmen’ movie will disappoint many over here by approaching the material with a lot less of its distinctly ‘British’ satirical/detached edge.

  68. Ken Parille says:

    I love visual/verbal puns in comics, but the problem with Watchmen for me is that there are too many of them, and so many are so obvious that it’s hard to stay focused on the narrative and not wait, uncomfortably, for the next word/image pun – especially when, if I recall correctly, many happen repeatedly at certain key points – such as scene transitions. Moore can’t stop himself, and so the book seems burdened at times, ironically, by both his own skill and his lack of restraint. These kinds of devices work better when they are less obvious, the kind of ‘joke’ you may get on a 3rd or 4th reading; there a plenty of these kinds of subtle ‘tricks’ in the novel, but they are often undermined by the overdone type. Perhaps if the tone of the book was less urgent in some way, these things wouldn’t seem out of place and wouldn’t compromise Moore’s achievements elsewhere in the book.

  69. Anonymous says:

    ps. Just realised that my (unfair) comments about Ware and Clowes in earlier comments may be down to them moving away from a (supposedly) rough’n’ready ‘American-ess’ and being welcomed into the world of Sundance movies and literary magazines – an ‘American-ess’ that doesn’t travel as well, imho (just as Moore’s current ‘Britishness’ doesn’t seem to be as welcome in the U.S. lately).

    This may also be why I’ve found Art Spiegelman to be the most overrated cartoonist of all time!

  70. Anonymous says:

    Ken –

    Moore smokes a ton of of dope, and speaking from experience I can easily see how he can carried away with the cleverness of his ideas and gimmicks.

    Let’s be fair here, I feel like I’ve seen more of Crumb’s orgasms than I have my own…

  71. T. Hodler says:

    @Ken: “Literary comic” is a reasonable designation to me because it is modeled on the widely used term “literary fiction,” which is more of a genre category than a claim of merit — of “literary” worth.

    I think the term “literary fiction” is confusing when used this way, too. I mean, what does the word “literary” mean as a genre category? Is Poe part of the genre of literary fiction? If so, then why not other murder mysteries, other horror stories? Is H.G. Wells literary? Then why not other time travel and alien invasion stories? Is Nabokov literary? Then why not other alternative reality stories (ADA)? Is Kafka literary? Borges? Saramago? Then why not other fantasies, etc.? Are Coetzee, Dickens, Cortázar, Flaubert, Tolstoy, and Genet really all writing in the same “genre”? If so, how do you define it? I could go on, but it seems to me that “literary” is so broad a term that it’s more or less meaningless, unless used as a qualitative (or marketing) term. But I’d love to be proven wrong if you could explain exactly what makes a story or novel fit… or more importantly, not fit.

    And then if we go back and apply the term to comics, is Ghost World literary? If so, is Velvet Glove Cast in Iron? If not, why not? And if so, what is literary supposed to mean?

    I hope this doesn’t come off as hostile; sometimes having pedantic arguments is fun to me.

  72. T. Hodler says:

    P.S. I hear you on Watchmen. I really need to read it again, as I feel weird defending or criticizing it at this point. I don’t know if the book in my head is the same as the one on my shelf.

  73. Anonymous says:

    The roots of ‘Watchmen’ – and a nice encapsulation of how British comics fandom approached U.S. pop culture in the days before globalisation:


    No prizes for guessing its main comic influence. Apologies for all the long-winded comments – I really should just go get my own blog…

  74. Anonymous says:

    Anon, i’m English as well, and you seem to have written out a whole swathe of British comics…DC Thompson…Eagle…Commando…Misty… etc. This stuff was in newsagents, (alongside porn as well…I’m not sure what relevance that has) not comics shops. That was our comics mainstream. I “get” where Moore is coming from, and I don’t like it, just like Yes and Roger Dean aren’t favourites of mine…neither are Moorcock, Gaiman or Talbot…I’ll take “unironic” Dudley D. Watkins or Leo Baxendale over all of them personally, even ye olde Frank Hampson for fuck’s sake. It’s funny, the Action-Warrior-2000AD lineage is often related to punks’ cultural ground zero, so it’s a shame it ended up so “prog”, so bloated, isn’t it? Also I don’t think Alan Moore’s got much grounds to gripe about cultural globalisation when so much of his own work is in an American idiom. If anything he’s been a contributor! The Ballad of Halo Jones was a great boyhood comics experience though. I love the way Ian Gibson drew back then…

  75. T. Hodler says:

    I just checked out “literary fiction” on wikipedia, and it agreed with me:


    Yay! Actually, that isn’t that impressive, but if they’re quoting John Updike (whose first literary novel was set in the future) correctly, then he agrees with me, too:

    “In a June 2006 interview with John Updike on The Charlie Rose Show, Updike stated that he … does not really like [the term]. He said that all his works are literary simply because ‘they are written in words.'”

    I can’t believe I’m citing wikipedia. A threshold has been crossed.

  76. Anonymous says:

    W.E. –
    I did mention the ‘naughty boy’ genre – of which Baxendale was the king, and ‘Viz’ it’s mutant big brother. Coomando and Misty were beneath trash even when I was seven! I suppose I did forget the whole war/imperial adventure genre (although they shared many creators with 2000ad like Pat Mills). I was talking mainly about 70s/80s comics – Eagle was way before my time.

    I’m not too hot on a lot of Moore’s influences, but I can certainly appreciate how he juggled them.

    How are comics an ‘American idiom’ (Toppfer? Herge? Tezuka?).
    I can totally understand why the 80s ‘British Invasion’ happened – U.S. superhero comics were very stale by the mid-80s (especially D.C.) and U.K. comics were paying about £25 a page to talents who knew they were worth more.

    T.Holder –

    All the novelists you cite are ‘literary’ (I’m shocked I’ve actually read ’em all). I’d say ‘Velvet Glove’ was far more ‘comic-y’ than ‘Ghost World’ which due to it’s use of place and character is both ‘literary’ AND ‘cinematic’. It’s the use of images – and how critics deal with them – that are the key.

    “Literature simply means what gets studied”.
    – Roland Barthes

  77. Anonymous says:

    It’s funny when comics snobs describe why they dislike Watchmen. It’s like listening to a Marvel fanboy describing why he doesn’t like Kramers Ergot.

  78. Jason Overby says:

    totally agree with Mr. Parille about Watchmen; I actually really like the book a lot, but Moore’s lack of restraint keeps me from thinking it’s truly great. From Hell’s the same way.

    I think Grant Morrison’s a little more successful. Doom Patrol was such a great comic and way less concerned with it’s own importance or conceptual unity than Moore’s post Swamp Thing output. And, aside from the ugly artwork, All-star Superman is the shit.

    I would totally buy a Green Lantern book by CF!

  79. Anonymous says:

    I’ve always found Morrison highly overrated (maybe it’s the hacked-out art – at least Moore works with the best when he can). If anything, he just apes more with less finesse (am I alone in finding ‘The Invisibles’ clumsy and masturbatory?).

    Back to an earlier point, it’s funny how Americans rate him so highly (he wasn’t even front rank on ‘2000ad’).

    Superman’s lovely, but suffers from a little too much of that rather flat, cinematic ‘storyboard’ layout (keep photoshop out of comics! Use your goddam fingers!).

    This discussion pushed me into getting some of Moore’s ‘Swamp Thing’ – and you know what? It’s still awesome! He fell flat on his face sometimes, and it lost a lot when Bissette/Totleben left, but it’s ‘conceptual unity’ was more honest and genuinely excited with the medium than Morrison’s endless advertisements for himself (ie. casting himself as a cosmic ‘reality terrorist’ – schmuck).

  80. Ken Parille says:


    You don’t seem hostile, and I see what you are saying – but that’s the problem with all of these terms. Any time you try to use two words to describe something when you really need at least a sentence – or a few paragraphs – you are open to trouble. But if someone says to me “I like literary comics” I would guess they mean Clowes and Ware and not Frank Miller or Jack Kirby. I really don’t have much investment in these terms, but I also don’t see the ways in which they are more damaging than other terms of this type.

    “I mean, what does the word “literary” mean as a genre category?”

    As you said yourself earlier, it typically means “stories [that] revolve around the real, mundane lives of ordinary people” — I think that it’s a marketing term and a loose classification.

    “Is Poe part of the genre of literary fiction? If so, then why not other murder mysteries, other horror stories? Is H.G. Wells literary? Then why not other time travel and alien invasion stories? Is Nabokov literary? Then why not other alternative reality stories (ADA)? Is Kafka literary? Borges? Saramago?”

    Writer and stories can usefully be placed in multiple categories. Most people would call Poe’s “Murders in the Rue Morgue” crime fiction or detective fiction and something like “Fall of the House of Usher” a horror story or even, as Poe often used to be called, “psychological realism” – when little about Poe seems realistic to me in a conventional sense. Using these terms and talking about what we expect in a work described this way can lead to interesting conversations, and so these terms are useful as point to begin a discussion.

    “Is Poe part of the genre of literary fiction?” I feel like you are arguing for genre claims as absolute claims, something I am not doing (there’s no scientific category of literary fiction). I believe that genre claims are really interpretive claims; they may be based on attributes of the work, but the classification is external to the work and so can be discussed and debated. I think that many writers don’t really write in genres, but that readers and marketers place them into genres for reasons that are both good and bad.

    If you think that Madeline Usher really comes back from the dead in “Fall of the House of Usher” you might want to align this tale with fantasies, in that people don’t come back from the dead in real life. If you think that it’s all in the mind of Usher and the narrator, you might want to reject it as a fantasy and call it a realistic horror story.

    “And then if we go back and apply the term to comics, is Ghost World literary? If so, is Velvet Glove Cast in Iron? If not, why not? And if so, what is literary supposed to mean?”

    I would say GW is literary by the above definition (“stories [that] revolve around the real, mundane lives of ordinary people”) and that LAVGCII is not. One reason is that the latter uses fantasy elements –- dogs with no orifices etc . . . — and the former does not.

    From Wikipedia:
    “However, literary fiction does not fit the general definition of a genre, as it lacks the cohesion of genres such as westerns or romance and lacks any kind of genre conventions”

    This is not true — here are some of the conventions: revolve around the real, mundane lives of ordinary people” . . .

  81. Anonymous says:

    ps. We should lobby for C.F. to do a Green Lantern Corps mini-series – give him a whole planet to play with for six issues!

  82. Anonymous says:

    Ooh, i love a naughty bit of Commando! haha. And British girl’s comics- they’re like exploitation films in the way they speak to the assumed prejudices of their audience. Misty is great! But yeah… it is trash- and I LIKE trash! It doesn’t have pretensions, or listen to Roger Waters era Pink Floyd. DC Thompson had some master cartoonists though. People forget…I even enjoy the Fleetway stuff and all that…

    So I slightly misunderstood yr original post there. To clarify, I didn’t mean comics are an American idiom, but the kind of heroic comics Moore has often worked in are- by his own admission in the interview that prompted this whole discussion.

    The “British Invasion” metaphor sorta holds water in that 2000AD etc. was a comparable “filtering” of US mainstream comics…still I prefer With The Beatles to The White album…if you follow me ; )


    (ps i bought Watchmen issue by issue as it came out- I bet nearly everyone commenting here did!)

  83. Ken Parille says:

    “However, literary fiction does not fit the general definition of a genre, as it lacks the cohesion of genres such as westerns or romance and lacks any kind of genre conventions”

    The term “romance” has such an incredibly varied history in literary criticism as a genre classification that to say there is “cohesion” is a real stretch; there isn’t.

  84. Anonymous says:

    Tom –

    I don’t really agree with what defines ‘literature’ (I majored in it at university).

    The French regarded pulp writers James M. Cain and Jim Thompson as existential greats. H.P. Lovecraft is in the ‘classics’ section at my local bookshop alongside Dickens and Dostoyevsky. William Burroughs never quite escaped his pulp exploitation roots.

    I thought these distinctions belonged to earlier decades? Or was that just a British thing?

    ‘Mundanity’ as ‘literary’ may explain why novels of yawn-inducing suburban malaise make the ‘literary’ reviews when writers dealing with more ‘fantastic’ or ‘sensational’ elements don’t – but my guess is that when we look back, it’s the ‘pulp’ that tells us what was really going on in a society…

  85. Anonymous says:

    If CF does a Green Lantern story I will shoot him dead.

  86. T. Hodler says:

    @Ken: Maybe so, but I didn’t make any claims about romance. So forget romance and forget wikipedia. Do you have any answers to any of my actual questions? What defines literary fiction as a genre besides marketing considerations?

  87. Ken Parille says:

    Above I said “GW is literary . . .”
    I should have said:

    I would say GW is a __literary comic__ by the above definition (“stories [that] revolve around the real, mundane lives of ordinary people”) and that LAVGCII is not. One reason is that the latter uses fantasy elements –- dogs with no orifices etc . . . — and the former does not.

  88. T. Hodler says:

    Okay. So Kafka’s out then?

  89. Anonymous says:

    W.E. –

    Yeah I did buy Watchmen issue by issue – for some reason I was obsessed with that and Potter’s ‘Singing Detective’ as a 14-year-old (and see a lot of parallels in them).

    In further defense of Moore, back in the day, reading comics in the UK as an adult was a pretty ‘counter-cultural’ thing to do (which going by the guys I saw in the comic shop today is definitely no longer the case!). Superheroes seemed – as ‘icons’ – seemed to have a different meaning then somehow.

    Alas, a lot of these distinctions and meanings are dictated by marketing and money.

  90. T. Hodler says:

    Oh geez. I’m sorry, Ken. Somehow I missed a bunch of comments. I’ll actually read them now! Forgive me.

  91. T. Hodler says:

    Okay. So now I read them, and I still have the same response: So Kafka’s out then? I don’t like any definition of “literary fiction” that doesn’t include Kafka, Homer, Shakespeare, etc.? I know it’s not science, but if it’s not a useful term, it’s not useful. What does “literary” do as a descriptor of comics that “naturalistic” or “realistic” or something similar wouldn’t? The latter terms aren’t nearly as contentious, or potentially misleading either.

    For now, I think I’m still with Updike. “Literary” means words.

  92. Anonymous says:

    Waht about ‘fine art’? Gary Panter? Robert Williams? I’m sure they don’t really give a shit of how they’re percieved by the art market (or are they just another sub-section of it?) It seems Spiegelman’s very concerned by his ‘literary’ pedigree (as were Eisner and Feiffer) – and it’s a major weakness of some younger cartoonists. ‘Blankets’? ‘Fun Home’? Do I not like these books because they seem CONTRIVED to get ‘literary’ approval?

  93. T. Hodler says:

    Oh, and it’s Tim by the way, not Todd. I should never have used the initial “T.” when I joined Blogger, but oh well.

  94. Ken Parille says:


    I actually thought my posts did answer the main questions, as we are talking about genre. And I specifically answered the questions about Poe and also the two Clowes works you asked about.

    I am not offering a definition of “literary fiction” that I am wedded to. I agreed with you and the definition you used in your original post. People use the term Literary Fiction when talking about fiction that focuses on real people in situations common to many people’s actual lives. In such fictions there usually are not fantasy elements (things that don’t exist) or violations of plausibility. They tend to avoid sensationalistic plot common to other genres. Etc . . .

    My above posts are critical of the idea of genre as people so often use it. I personally am critical of the term genre fiction, so I am talking about how people talk about it. I also agreed that it is a marketing term.

  95. Ken Parille says:

    “Okay. So now I read them, and I still have the same response: So Kafka’s out then? I don’t like any definition of “literary fiction” that doesn’t include Kafka, Homer, Shakespeare, etc.? I know it’s not science, but if it’s not a useful term, it’s not useful. What does “literary” do as a descriptor of comics that “naturalistic” or “realistic” or something similar wouldn’t? The latter terms aren’t nearly as contentious, or potentially misleading either.”

    I also agree with the above: “realisitic fiction” is much better!

  96. Ken Parille says:

    When I was writing the post 2 above, I had not read your follow up — sorry.

  97. Anonymous says:

    I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie ‘Adaptation’ where screenplay guru launches into Nicholas Cage’s character reminding him that there are people robbing, fucking, killing, betraying each other all the over the place and the idea of ‘normal life’ is bullshit.

    As a comics geek who wastes his evenings posting comments on blogs, I can vouch for the fact that ‘real life’ can be far more sensational, fantastic, shocking and surreal than ‘respectable’ literary fiction is often willing to acknowledge – and no, I haven’t been abducted by a UFO!

  98. Frank Santoro says:

    wait, who’s Todd?

  99. Ken Parille says:

    Re: Kafka

    Kafka is in my top three, but I would see him more in terms of various fantasy, allegorical, and religious traditions than in the realistic traditions of, say, 19th century “social realist” novelists like George Eliot or “naturalists” like William Dean Howells or Stephen Crane.

  100. Anonymous says:

    One man’s ‘fantasy’ is another’s ‘realism’ – Kafka’s labrynths, however metaphorical, can connect with life how it is lived – and arguably in much more direct way than Roth or Updike.

    I’d go with Terry Eagleton’s definition – generally, literature is a structured intensification of everyday language in written form, whatever the setting or situation. There are actually people out there who have murdered their lover’s husband, took part in revolutions and wars, flew through space, ‘conversed’ with ‘gods’ or ‘demons’ and attempted human/animal hybrids.

    I never quite saw how menopausal academics are more ‘real’ than gangsters and mad scientists. We may be more likely to meet the former (if we’re lucky?) but it’s all ‘literature’ if written convincingly. And yes, I’ve had personal experiences that have felt ‘metaphorical’ or ‘allegorical’ of a bigger picture (no, not religious etc.) – so who knows?

  101. T. Hodler says:

    @Ken: Well of course! But that’s kind of my point. Literary fiction didn’t start in the 19th century, and isn’t confined to the realism!

  102. Ken Parille says:

    I would again say that my only interest is in how the term is used now, and that the analogous term ‘literary comics’ is ok as a broad, somewhat useful, but utimately inaccurate term. And saying that I see Kafka more in an allegorical tradition than a realisitic mode is to say absolutely nothing about his value, literary merit, or relevance.

  103. Isaac says:

    Holder and Parille:

    Maybe it would help if, rather than thinking of “literary [fiction]” as a genre, we thought of it as an approach to storytelling: a request that the reader take the work, its themes and its technical devices, seriously. A novel is successfully “literary” if it implies that request and sustains the sort of attention the request asks for.

    An author could try to write “literary fiction” and wind up with a hack pastiche of Ray-Carveresque suburban ennui that I wouldn’t really want to call literary.

    Maybe the best way to think of this is “If it exceeds or transcends its genre, it’s literary.” I guess that does make application of the term a quality judgment of some sort. Maybe that’s not how you’d want to use it. But that’s the way I wind up using it most of the time.

    You could say, for example, “Moore uses superhero tropes for literary ends,” or you could say, “the latest Updike novel is realist but maybe not all that literary.”

    It’s a hard word to define, but I like to think that (like “pornography,” for example), I know literature when I read it…

  104. Isaac says:

    Oops— typo— Hodler and Parille. No offense.

  105. Ken Parille says:

    So, what’s a good term for comics that do a lot of things that only comics can?

  106. Ken Parille says:


    as you note, that use still gets us into the value territory, which I am trying to avoid.

  107. Isaac says:

    It sounds like it gets you into valuation, but only if you accept that the qualities of “literary” works are superior to the qualities of “non-literary” (genre/entertainment) works.

    Me, I like a good goofy movie with explosions from time to time, and I like a well-crafted superhero comic that doesn’t try to exceed its genre. I don’t think “literary” comics are better than genre comics, except in that they’re more durable, more susceptible to analysis, etc. (I mean, analysis that’s not merely technical, but also has to do with meaning.)

    Here’s another test case for the genre-vs.-approach distinction:

    “Literary nonfiction.” It exists, as a category, and people get prizes in it, and so forth. How is it different from regular nonfiction? Presumably not in that it’s more concerned with everyday reality.

  108. Ken Parille says:

    The same term can have different meanings in different contexts – so the ‘literary’ in ‘literary fiction’ means something different than the ‘literary’ in ‘literary nonfiction.’ Ala graphic in ‘graphic language’ and ‘graphic novel’ — or not . . .

  109. Frank Santoro says:

    Okay, I think I’m tired of the term “Literary Comics” now more than ever. I don’t care what it means and what it means in different contexts. The backlash is in full swing for me. Tim was trying to show how silly the term is… and this discussion just proves his point.

  110. Ken Parille says:

    People also use the term creative nonfiction as synonomous with literary nonfiction. This doesn’t – or shouldn’t – imply that traditional nonfiction is not creative. But when people come to a journal that advertises itself as publishing creative nonfiction readers have a different set of expectations.

  111. Ken Parille says:


    I guess I disagree – I am interested in how people use critical terms and the different things they mean by them. So Todd’s and Issac’s comments are interesting to me in that I see how smart people think about these things – It really helps me to examine the assumptions and flaws in my own thinking . . . If all criticism were about terms it would be a bore – but given the role that terms play, arguments, even “pedantic” ones — as Todd called this one earlier, can be a help, to me at least.

  112. Frank Santoro says:


    I guess I can’t take you seriously because you keep calling Tim the wrong name. Pay attention, bro. How can you make distinctions about Literary this and Literary that when you don’t even know who you’re talking to?

    You talk a lot of sense and I’m glad that you have the patience and interest to make such distinctions. Really. But, it just doesn’t interest me.

  113. Ken Parille says:

    not to mention a harmless Sunday distraction from more pressing work. . .

  114. Isaac says:

    …And, you know, even a pedantic conversation like this about the meaning of terminology can be useful for practicing artists.

    Is it worth thinking about what you’re trying to do as “literary”? I think Storeyville is a really literary book in a lot of ways; I also think it’s a lot more painterly than most comics I’ve seen; it’s also got a lot of strong “pure comics” sequences in it.

    If I could put more clearly what I mean by those words, it might help you see your work through the eyes of your audience.

    One of the problems with the term “literary comics” (and this is at the heart of Todd’s original post) is that people don’t seem to agree on what the word “literary” means when it’s applied to comics, so the term doesn’t communicate very well. I’d like to work that out, because I think it’s a term that delineates a pretty useful distinction.

  115. Isaac says:

    Okay, I guess it’s Tim and not Todd. I knew there was a reason I kept saying “Hodler” instead.

  116. Ken Parille says:


    Thanks for pointing that out — and my apologies.

    “Really. But, it just doesn’t interest me.”

    Fair enough.

  117. Frank Santoro says:

    I really like your writing on the subject and on all things comics, Ken. Please know that.

  118. Ken Parille says:

    Thanks, Frank — I appreciate that.

  119. afdumin says:

    Perhaps a useful term to refer to what Tim is talking about might be “comicgramatic”. The term, while new, seems pretty self expainitory in referring to those qualities unique to the comics form just as “cinematic” refers to qualities unique to film. It also avoids specifing any one particular style (as the term “cartoonic” does), but rather encompases all of the various devices used to make up what we would call “comics grammar” be they caracture, exageration, word/image combination/juxtiposition, structure, page and panel layout, etc.

    For example, one might say that the book “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” is a children’s novel that contains many comicgramatic elements. While, “Gemma Bovary” is a graphic novel that conatains many literary elements.

  120. afdumin says:

    Similarly, the term “comicgraphic” might be useful, as “comicgramatic” sounds a bit clunky.

  121. T. Hodler says:

    @Ken: Don’t worry about the name thing. It’s no big deal. I’m still sticking with my original position, but I think I’m debated out on the rest of this, at least for now.

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