With all the talk about how some people think comics are too influenced by literature, it may be worth remembering that there are people in the literary world who think contemporary fiction is becoming too influenced by comics. No big point here — just that these things get kind of complicated. Personally speaking, as long as the comics work as comics and the prose works as prose, I don’t care what influences whom.
Recently, I’ve read two pretty terrific comics-inflected novels that I thought might be worth pointing out to those interested in such things.
First, Junot Díaz of Drown fame just published his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It’s been getting tons of great press, but I’ve been surprised that it hasn’t come up for discussion more in comics circles, because it’s probably the most comics-friendly novel I’ve ever read. There are constant references to comics past, from Clowes (one character is described as looking like he walked straight out of the pages of Eightball) to Kirby (the novel’s epigraph is right from Fantastic Four 49: “Of what import are brief, nameless lives … to Galactus??” [bold case and double-punctuation in the original!]).
Díaz has been fairly vocal about his regard for Gilbert Hernandez, recently saying in a Los Angeles Times profile of Hernandez, “For those of us who are writing across or on borders, I honestly think he was, for me, more important than anyone else.” That becomes readily apparent on reading the book, as allusions to Love & Rockets recur at a steady clip. The title character’s Dominican mother is repeatedly compared to Luba, both in terms of physique and personality, and her storyline (complete with gangster boyfriend and political terrorism) is obviously an extended homage to Poison River, among other Beto tales.
But it’s not just in his references that Díaz demonstrates his influence, but in the very structure of his novel, which meanders and jumps in time and circles back to fill in backstory in almost exactly the same way that the Hernandez brothers have done for so long in their Palomor and Locas sagas. Some day, a grad student’s going to have a very easy time writing a thesis about all of this.
It’s also a great, tremendously funny (and sad) novel, and Díaz runs rings around most of his contemporaries with his prose style. Anyone who loves Love & Rockets (actually anyone period) should really read this book.
The other comics-saturated novel I read this summer, Jack Womack‘s Ambient, probably doesn’t possess quite as wide an appeal, though I liked it a lot. It’s a cartoonishly violent, satirical capitalism-run-amok dystopia, sort of like Mad Max-meets-the-corporate-boardroom; Long Island has become the location of a decades-long Vietnam-style military quagmire, and lower Manhattan is filled with a punkish underclass, many of whom have mutilated themselves in a kind of impotent social protest.
Much of the imagery and tone reminds me of Gary Panter, though Womack never refers to him directly. The cartoonists Womack admits to following are Chester Gould (one of the main bad guys has a framed Dick Tracy panel on his wall), George Herriman, and Walt Kelly (the aforementioned “ambient” underclass has developed a patois-like language nearly Elizabethan in its complexity that Womack has said was inspired by the dialogue in Krazy Kat and Pogo).
Some of the elements of this novel feel a little dated now, such as a religion that worships Elvis Presley, though they undoubtedly seemed fresher when the novel was first published twenty years ago. Still I enjoyed it, and plan on checking out the rest of the series. You can probably tell based on the description whether or not this is your cup of