… 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.