Reflections on philosophy and culture

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Yet another rant about comics...

Lately, I've been forsaking traditional fiction more and more in favor of...graphic novels? sequential art? narrative art?

These are labels that have popped up in the last thirty years or so to express the fact that comics have become a mature art form in their own right. To my knowledge, the first such label was "graphic novel," a term purportedly coined by Will Eisner when he was pitching A Contract with God on the phone with a publisher. This book has the reputation of having been the first book-length comics narrative (putting aside collections of previous short-form comics). Eisner has said that he knew it was something new. This was not just because it was a book-length comic, but also because it dealt with subject matters - urban decay, child molestation, the Great Depression, Jewish culture in America - usually left to more 'serious' art forms.

Since Eisner's groundbreaking work, a lot has changed for comics, and a lot hasn't. Many, many brilliant works have been produced in the medium, and many of them have garnered attention from a wider audience. Yet, although it's been twenty years since Art Spiegelman won the Pultizer for Maus, and although the work of luminaries like Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes graces the pages of The New Yorker and the New York Times, most people who read literature simply don't read comics.

In the last few months, this situation has gotten on my nerves more and more, since I think that the best work in comics right now is simply some of the best literature being produced, period. I read Jonathan Franzen's Freedom - for which Franzen's face was emblazoned on the cover of an issue of Time magazine hailing him as the 'great American novelist.' Some of my friends (whose opinions and tastes I admire and pay close attention to) raved about Colm Tobin's Brooklyn, and so I read it too. Good books, both of them, but nothing remotely as interesting as what I've been reading in comics.

Yes, I know, this is yet another rant from a comics lover who is decrying the relative neglect of the medium. Instead of blathering on, and to end on a positive note, I'll simply stop and list some of the things that have blown me away recently. For those of you who are comics readers yourselves, none of these will come as a surprise, I think:

Dogs & Water by Anders Nilsen: I'm a sucker for wordless or near-wordless comics, and this is the best I've seen in a long time. A young man wanders a barren landscape, encountering, among other things, dogs and water. Nilsen's images are themselves barren - as one reviewer put it, he captures something like Beckett's silence-through-words in spare lines inhabiting vast empty white vistas on the page.

Monologues Calculating the Destiny of Black Holes, by Anders Nilsen: if Dogs & Water is Nilsen's The Lost Ones, this is his "Waiting for Godot" - a collage of vignettes as bizarre as they are funny.

Don't Go Where I Can't Follow by Anders Nilsen: a heartbreaking book by Nilsen, chronicling - through comics, reproduced letters, journal entries and photos - the death of his fiancee from cancer.

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel: Bechdel chronicles her youth in non-linear fashion, telling the story of a time period which saw both her own own progress toward discovering and embracing her lesbianism, and her father's progress toward committing suicide after a life as a closeted homosexual.

Maus I by Art Spiegelman: this was the first graphic novel I read when my interest in comics was first re-kindled as an undergrad - after hearing Michael Silverblatt interview Spiegelman on the literary radio show "Bookworm." I hadn't read it for more than ten years, and on coming back to it recently, I found that I'd changed enough - older and wiser? - to love it even more than I did way back then. It tells two stories: first, the life of Vladek Spiegelman (Art's father) leading up to his imprisonment at Auschwitz; second, Art Spiegelman's vexed relationship with his father, which plays out over the course of his attempts to interview Vladek for the book. In it, Jews are drawn as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs. It sounds like a conceit that makes light of the Holocaust, but the effect is just the opposite: a Holocaust narrative which is intensely moving without veering off into the maudlin (what Spiegelman has called 'Holokitsch')

More American Splendor by Harvey Pekar: I picked this one up after seeing Pekar's widow and their adopted daughter speak about his legacy at the San Diego Comicon. "American Splendor" recounts moments from life that are so mundane, so unremarkable that they seem like something otherworldly, almost profane in the intimacy into which they bring you with his characters (very often, himself and his friends).

Wilson by Daniel Clowes: after reading Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron a couple years back, I started souring on Clowes. At his worst, he strikes me as misanthropic in a way that recalls the hateful films of Todd Solondz. But when he hits his mark, his works provide a sympathetic window into human frailty and pathos. "Wilson" is one of the latter kind, I was happy to discover. It tells the story of a depressive middle aged man who struggles to renew contact with the world.

I could go on and on, but I won't anymore. It suffices to say that after the glut of comics I've been reading these last few months, my sense that we're living in a Golden Age of this medium grows stronger and stronger.

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