Can O’ Worms


by

Tuesday, January 2, 2007


Well, my fave comics of ’06 list caused a little tizzy in web-land. And Dirk got kind of annoyed. All because of my flippant remark about Fun Home. My remark was just that: flippant; and not really meant as a substantive criticism (obviously), but rather as an example of a disagreement with the PW list. That said, I don’t really have much to add: I found the narrative devices in Fun Home to be rather forced and the cartooning too often stiff and inexpressive. Most of all, it just seemed overstuffed and not really in control of the medium. Mostly, it just doesn’t interest me enough as a book to write any further about it. It’s not a terrible book, just kinda mediocre.

I don’t agree with Dirk that my not liking it represents some kind of comics-elitist (something I’m certainly not–though I’d like to see a list of qualifications) reaction against mass popularity. I totally understand why it has wider appeal than Kim Deitch’s work (which is vastly more successful as art)–ummmm, that’s the way world works. I’m not surprised at all, nor do I expend any energy being annoyed at it. Culture is what it is and the most we can do is to work for and promote and write about the things we believe in and hope for the best.

And further, contra-Dirk I don’t make my aesthetic judgments based on the relative popularity of a work or what “scene” it emerges from. Who cares about that stuff? I might have at age 14 but certainly not now. I judge things based on their relative successes as art, and that’s it. So that’s pretty much my response. I didn’t like the book that much, but anything else–scenes, cred, popularity and all that other foolishness is besides the point.

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13 Responses to “Can O’ Worms”
  1. johnasdf@gmail.com says:

    Actually, I thought your initial post was brilliant and immediately forwarded it to all my comics friends, partly because it’s the only dissenting view I’ve seen on FUN HOME. I read it and was ready to like it but thought it was probably the stiffest book I’ve ever read. What I think people—both non-comics readers (for reasons of familiarity) and comics readers (for reasons of respectability)—like about the book is that it is obviously meaningful in the same way that middlebrow literary fiction is. When I read it, I realized that I’d finally read a comic as lifeless and manicured as a New Yorker creative nonfiction story!

    As a narrative, with Fun Home, you never get either the panoptic sense of watching a whole life and society (as in, say, Love and Rockets, Bellow, etc.) or the private, tender sense of watching characters reveal themselves unintentionally (as in Lynda Barry, Chekhov, etc.). When I read Carol Tyler, I don’t necessarily think that she’s profound, but I do sense a wonderful sense of humanity and fallibility that emerges from both her literary voice and from her unpretentious, chewing-at-the-panel-walls drawing style. But with Bechdel’s book, both in terms of literature and art, the story is totally spelled out, with each narrative sequence underlined with a prose annotation. Late Bloomer and Fun Home are like polar opposites: the first is full of life and shows the meaningfulness of mundane reality; the latter is anal retentive, controlled but not complicated, and labors to show the meaningfulness of an exoticized anecdote. I think even if Fun Home would have worked for me as a story, the art is not expressive. First of all, it’s usually not necessary and only serves to illustrate the writing. Second, the drawings—the panel layouts, the camera angles, etc.—don’t “tell” me anything. I don’t gain anything that I wouldn’t have gotten from just reading the script.

  2. Dan Nadel says:

    Well, that was easy. Thanks. I think you’re dead-on about what’s wrong with Fun Home, particularly in terms of the off-kilter relationship between text and image throughout.

  3. Aaron White says:

    Thank you both for your dissenting views-it’s inspired me to reread Fun Home. I’m inclined to think you’re both using the “too many notes” approach to comics dissing, but since I don’t have much beyond the “this comic RAWKS” approach to comics praising, I’ll defer further squalking.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I’d call “bullshit” on the statement you don’t make aesthetic judgments on what scene the art originates from… It is easy enough to see your tastes don’t move far outside the RAW-FORT THUNDER-D&Q crowd. I’d imagine you don’t read much else, say books from Top Shelf (what was your view on Blankets? Without knowing, I’d guess negative). Dirk was on target that comics elitist is pretty much the only way to describe it.
    [Also for future reference, it is pretty transparent to include your partner's wife's project on your top pick list... Having read it, her book was hardly worth that honor.]

  5. Dan Nadel says:

    I’m loath to rise to such obvious baiting but I’m feeling crabby today, so:

    1) What I’m interested in and have published clearly extends beyond the imaginary nexus above. Just look at the first two issues of Comics Comics (filled with “mainstream” stuff), or http://www.pictureboxinc.com or look for articles I’ve written on line. Don’t be lazy.

    2) Insults about Lauren’s book are lame. You don’t have to like it, but to cast aspersions is unfair and silly. Sometimes a cigar (in fact usually) is just a cigar. It would be on the list if she was an utter stranger living in Zimbabwe. Who cares?

    3) Get over it.

  6. T Hodler says:

    I’d like to say, too, Anonymous, that the “transparency” you mention is completely on purpose. Every reader should know that I am married to Lauren, which is why I mentioned it way back in the first introductory post of this blog, and have continued to mention it from time to time so that readers would be aware of any possible conflict of interest.

    I’m so unbelievably proud of her that I’d mention it in every single post if I didn’t think it would get boring real fast.

    In any case, I’m a big fan of transparency in general, but I’m guessing you’re not, since you weren’t brave enough to use your own name. To each his own.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I’d have a bit more respect for that anonymous carper if they’d signed their names to their opinions.

    Second, I had Lauren’s book on my best of 2006 list. I thought it was fantastic and I certainly wasn’t the only one.

    Lastly, to echo Dan, perhaps you should actually read an issue of Comics Comics before you lump them into some imaginary camp. The latest issue had a long article on Steve Gerber, and #1 had a review of the autobiography that Dick Ayers did.

    –Rob Clough

  8. Aaron White says:

    It’s hardly needed, but just to add one more retort to the anonymous sniper-there’s a difference between having an aesthetic preference and having a scene loyalty. If it’s fair to accuse Nadel of disliking Fun Home for scenester bias, it’s just as fair to accuse me of liking Fun Home because, say, I’m gay or I think the copious prose makes it more bookish than more pictoral funnybooks. Since I’m neither gay nor afflicted with a literary bias, you can do the math.

  9. Lenny Riggio says:

    I liked Fun Home, although not as much as a lot of critics. I think the comparisons to Carol Tyler and Lynda Barry are off-base. It’s a very different kind of book with a different intent. To me that’s like putting down Nabokov for not writing like Hemingway. Bechdel is continually going over the same time periods, the same events from various angles, trying to determine if what she believes about her father is true, and how she could have missed what was happening in their constricted household. I liked the non-linear aspect of the storytelling–it made more sense in terms of Bechdel’s search than it would have if she simply told a straightforeward story. I didn’t mind the bookishness or literariness of it at all; first, because I am a bookish person (I read lots of novels, including the kinds that critics for The New Yorker like, heh), and second because it was a thematic link between Bechdel and her secretive, icy father. Indeed, if the book seems cold, it’s because it’s a dissection.

    But I agree that the art fell short. I think Bechdel is a great strip artist, but the weird thing is that the art on her strip is much more confident and alive (while stylistically the same). I think she was scared to get loose, perhaps because of the subject matter. I dunno.

    In any case, I certainly don’t mind that people disagree with me. I’m not sure I understand why Dirk got so worked up.

  10. Anonymous says:

    The weird part of this whole dialog to me is that everyone agrees that it’s a really bad thing to be attracted to a particular ‘scene’. I can’t think of a single piece of art that I admire or enjoy without that admiration or enjoyment being colored by my understanding of its origins and/or context — in other words, its ‘scene’. How could it be otherwise? And why would we wish it to be?

    - Pablo Picasso

  11. johnasdf@gmail.com says:

    Lenny– I agree that comparisions with Carol Tyler and Lynda Barry might be off. However, my problem with the story of Fun Home was that it was *too* straightforward–her interpretations are static and flattening, no ambiguity. When Alice Munro (maybe a closer analogy) jumpes backwards and forwards in time, the subjects become both more real and more mysterious.

  12. Lenny Riggio says:

    Jonas: I can agree with you that there is this sense of flattened characters, or that the character of her father is what he is right from the start and we never really discern anything new about him. Bechdel had made her investigation and drawn her conclusions, and here she was telling them to us. Maybe that (and the less-than-great art) are why my admiration isn’t wholehearted.

    But I think there are two characters who are drawn out gradually. Bechdel’s mother and herself.

    And the trapped-in-amber quality of her father worked ok for me because she worked in the way the scenery was shifting behind him. By the time he died, his closet was almost irrelevant, but he was trapped in it all the same. Bechdel suggests he chose death over leaving the closet. Given this, I think the static quality of the character of the father makes dramatic sense.

    In any case, I do think the reason a book like this gets discussed over and above others that are equally deserving is its similarity to a novel. It’s not hard for a critic from outside the world of comics to articulate what he or she likes about it (or dislikes). I think that is fundamentally harder to do with, say, Carol Tyler or Chester Brown or Eddie Campbell, much less Mat Brinkman or Gary Panter, whose virtues and faults are utterly unrelated to the aesthetic of the novel.

    I don’t begrudge Bechdel her success (since in the end, I liked her book a lot), but I would like critics to develop the ability to see and speak about comics in ways that owe less to the conventions of criticism of novels and film, for the obvious reason that critics coming from those critical points-of-view will tend to overrate novelistic or filmic comics, and underrate those that can’t easily be discussed in those terms.

  13. Anonymous says:

    the idea of someone at comics journal throwing around the term “comics elitist” is sort of amusing in its own right.