Posts Tagged ‘comics vs. literature’

The Original of Cheepy


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Tuesday, August 4, 2009


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Brian Boyd, the man who wrote the book on Vladimir Nabokov (literally), checked in this morning to solve our Cheepy the guinea pig problem. This post is intended to ensure that his excellent comment—which includes much more of interest regarding Nabokov, comics, Art Spiegelman, and Dr. Seuss—doesn’t get lost in the eddies of the internet.

(He also weighs in on the recent terminology conundrum. Unfortunately, I am forced to respectfully disagree with his suggestion, which I think sounds too much like “colicky,” and evokes unpleasant physical sensations.)

By the way, I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you readers. In the last month, this blog seems to have reached new heights. Particularly in the comments threads. Every time I log in, I know I’m in for a series of surprises and insights. You guys are really bringing it. Thanks for participating, and for helping to build this site into something exciting and unique.

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Nabokov and Comics Revisited


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Tuesday, July 28, 2009


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Vladimir Nabokov’s love of comics has been discussed on this blog before. Equally interesting is the flip-side, the love cartoonists have for Nabokov. Here are a few examples:

1. Jay Lynch interview, Comics Journal #114:

Lynch: Sure. Sometimes, I think that Nard N’ Pat is pretty much derived from James Joyce’s Ulysses and that Phoebe is nothing more than improvisations that spin off from Nabokov’s Ada.

Lait: How many times have you read Ada?

Lynch: Eight or nine. Jackie has known me for years, so he knows that I think Nabokov’s Ada is the greatest, most complex piece of fiction ever written. Once I did a thing for RAW called “The Goodnight Kids.” It’s full of Ada references. I figured if one person deciphered that, I’d be fulfilled.

“The Goodnight Kids” can be found in Raw vol. 1, #5 (1983).

2. Dan Clowes interview, Comics Journal #233, discussing his graphic novel David Boring:

Clowes: I was certainly inspired by Pale Fire, I think, with his undependable narrator, or maybe he is a dependable narrator, it’s hard to say. The way he sort of references this text, that being the old comic book, and sort of re-imagines it into what he wants it to be.

When I was reading Pale Fire, I remember the thing I really responded to was the idea that I had, as a kid, read comics that my brother had left lying around, and I had tried to take from them some unconscious message that wasn’t necessarily there. I thought that was such a great thing in Pale Fire how this unreliable critic who’s sort of mis-analyzing this whole epic poem that John Shade has written, is actually creating this whole new work of art that’s possibly even superior to this great poem itself.

Clowes also included a Nabokov joke in Eightball #17: a gag cartoon titled “The Lepidopterist.” David Boring is full of allusions to Nabokov. Perhaps the most subtle is a statement made by the hero to his lover, “You’re the original of Wanda.” (p. 92.) Nabokov’s last, unfinished book (which will finally be published this fall) is titled The Original of Laura.

3. Chris Ware interview, Comics Journal #200:

Ware: There is a segment in Lolita where Humbert Humbert is trying to describe the accumulative effect of a number of events going on in his visual field as he comes upon an accident scene in his front yard. He has to go through three or four paragraphs to describe what’s happening, and he excuses himself and the limits of his medium for its inherent lack of simultaneity. This is, of course, something you could presumably do in a comic strip, though it wouldn’t be nearly as funny.

4. In his novel Laughter in the Dark, Nabokov described a fictional animated character named “Cheapy the Guinea Pig.” In the anthology Zero Zero, issue #27, Al Columbia did a one-page strip imagining what Cheapy looked like.

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Plodding Along


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Monday, July 27, 2009


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As some readers may remember, a while back I suggested that it would be nice if we could all agree on an adjective that could do the same work for comics that “literary” and “cinematic” perform for literature and film. For various reasons, the post proved somewhat controversial. In the end, the most popular suggestions were, if I remember correctly, “cartoonic,” “pictographic,” “Herrimatic,” and “McCloudy.” Later, the great cartoonist Mark Newgarden told me he had thought of the perfect word, but had forgotten it before running into me. It is a maddening thing to reflect upon for too long.

Anyway, in the comments to Friday’s post, gentleman Jeet Heer recommended an essay about Nabokov and comics by the scholar and cartoonist Clarence Brown. Coincidentally, in the piece in question (which mostly concerns instances in Nabokov’s writings which Brown believes are informed by the aesthetics of comics), Brown advocates for another possible contender to the comics-adjective crown:

I needed a word that conveyed the sense of “comicstrippishness” but that would be less clumsy, a word that conveyed something like the soul or essence of the comic strip. …

Chess is essentially an abstract play of force and counterforce constrained within a rigidly measured grid of relationships; as such, it is quite independent of its material incarnation in patterned board and pieces. Similarly, the procedures of pictorial narrative, the left-to-right movement of figures against a ground and in sequential frames, can be adumbrated in verbal patterns. That, at least, is what I attempted to name when I came up with the term “bédesque.”

The French call a comic strip “la bande dessinée,” or popularly “la BD.” My coinage bédesque has passed the test of satisfying the linguistic intuition of native speakers. I tried bédesque on Alain Besançon, the writer and political philosopher, who was on an opportune visit to Princeton. He first countered with bédique but then decided that he liked bédesque better.

—Clarence Brown, “Krazy, Ignatz, and Vladimir”, Nabokov at Cornell, edited by Gavriel Shapiro

“Bédesque” has the advantage of a French etymology, as “cinematic” did, but also has a disadvantage in that “la BD” isn’t as commonly used in English as “cinema” has been. Somehow I don’t think this will take off, though I can’t think of any practical objections offhand other than that comics fans are likely to reject it as pretentious. In any case, I haven’t been able to find any other references to the term online. Oh well: More grist for the mill.

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Not Necessarily Deep Thoughts


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Tuesday, June 16, 2009


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I. Did Jean-Luc Godard ever consider becoming a novelist?

Yes, of course. But I wrote, “The weather is nice. The train enters the station,” and I sat there for hours wondering why I couldn’t have just as well written the opposite: “The train enters the station. The weather is nice” or “it is raining.” In the cinema, it’s simpler. At the same time, the weather is nice and the train enters the station. There is something ineluctable about it. You have to go along with it.

—Godard, from a 1959 interview in L’Express, included in Richard Brody‘s entertaining, controversial biography of the filmmaker, Everything is Cinema.

Brody goes on to call this concept central to Godard’s art, and “the basis for a grand theory”:

[Godard’s] idea is to define montage as the simultaneous recording of disparate elements in a single image, the simultaneity in one image of two things that would happen sequentially on a page—the train entering the station, the rain falling. In his view, the cinema does automatically what literature wants to do and cannot: it connects two ideas in one time.

II. Is this “montage” really a failure of literature, prose’s unachievable ambition?

How … does the work of reading a narrative differ from watching a film? In a film the illusion of reality comes from a series of pictures each slightly different. The difference represents a fixed chronological relation which the eye and the mind together render as motion.

Words in a narrative generate tones of voice, syntactic expectations, memories of other words, and pictures. But rather than a fixed chronological relation, they sit in numerous inter- and overweaving relations. The process as we move our eyes from word to word is corrective and revisionary rather than progressive. Each new word revises the complex picture we had a moment before.

Samuel R. Delany, from his 1968 article, “About 5,750 Words”, included in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw.

III. These quotes raise that age-old, brain-numbing question: Are comic books more like movies or more like literature? I’m not going to try to resolve the matter here. (Though really, of course, the answer is neither.)

With these particular quotes in mind, though, I recently started thinking about how exactly I experience reading comics. It differs depending on the comic, obviously, but I guess that my default way of reading the average, traditional comic is to first take a quick “skim” of the visual composition and art of the entire page (or two-page spread), then to proceed to a slightly longer glance at the art of the first panel. At that point, I usually read the narration and word balloons, and after that, I look more closely and patiently at the art. And then I go back and forth between the art and the words as often as is necessary to understand everything before moving on to the next panel. (And then sometimes I’ll have to go back to the first panel, sometimes I’ll skip ahead to look at the art for the last panel, etc. It wouldn’t be very entertaining to go on.)

Obviously, none of this is a conscious procedure, and I wouldn’t even swear that it’s perfectly accurate. And even if it is, it doesn’t follow that everyone else (or anyone else) reads comics the same way that I do. (Not to mention more complicated and/or idiosyncratically laid-out comics pages, like the endpapers in Ware‘s ACME 18 or nearly any page by Ron Regé, to pick just two of many possible examples.) But the main point is that, unlike cinema, and like other arts including literature, the process of “reading” comic books isn’t a simultaneous one. It’s not image and word at once, but one after the other after the other.

When people want to connect comic books to film (which used to be the main strategy comics fans employed to convince skeptical non-fans that comics were “art” before they switched to using literary fiction or poetry), Will Eisner is the name more likely to come up than any other. And there’s no question that he was obviously influenced by cinematic ideas of composition and lighting. But it just occurred to me that the one element of his work that is most consistently held up as “unique” to comics, the famous Spirit splash pages that incorporate the titles visually into the mise en scène (to steal some jargon), may in fact paradoxically be the most “cinematic” of all his effects. In a weird kind of way, they provide one of the only examples in comics that I can think of offhand that truly approaches Godard’s concept of montage, a simultaneous connection of two ideas that would normally be experienced sequentially—image and word—in a single instant.


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… But I Sure Can Pontificate About Them!


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Friday, February 27, 2009


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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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Comics Enriched Their Lives! #10


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Friday, January 30, 2009


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In the imaginary interviews I sometimes have with The Paris Review I have happily envisioned myself making long heterogeneous lists of predecessors in answer to that inevitable question: I’d say, “My lasting literary influences? Um—The Tailor of Gloucester, Harold Nicolson, Richard Pryor, Seuss‘s If I Ran the Circus, Edmund Burke, Nabokov, Boswell, Tintin, Iris Murdoch, Hopkins, Michael Polanyi, Henry and William James, John Candy, you know, the usual crowd.”

—Nicholson Baker, U and I

That Nicholson Baker likes comics is no shock, I know, and I promised I wouldn’t post any more of these things unless they were interesting, but I like this quote enough that I don’t mind being a hypocrite.

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Ernie’s Last Tape


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Wednesday, August 6, 2008


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For a follow-up to Dan’s post on the recent media confusion over the supposed correspondence between Ernie Bushmiller and Samuel Beckett, go here. Ben Towle has just posted the Hermenaut article that started it all.

[Via Tom Spurgeon, and Fritzi Ritz cover stolen from Pappy.]

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