Thursday, October 20, 2005

Call it "visual literature"

I’ll admit it -- I’m one of those narrow-minded snob assholes whose brain shuts off when a comic book crosses my vision. You know the cliché, the ones where all the men look like Schwarzenegger and all the women look like no woman ever looked. I’ve never cared much for superhero comics; in my brief comics phase when I was a kid, I leaned more towards the old E.C. horror books published by William Gaines, like Vault of Horror and Tales from the Crypt.

The forward-march of the comics world is kind of old news at this point; both mainstream and literary authors have been taking tricks from them for years. Stephen King’s E. C. tributes include his graphic novels Cycle of the Werewolf and Creepshow (both with art by Berni Wrightston). Mark Z. Danielewski’s 2000 novel House of Leaves resembles a scrapbook, from which an engagingly fractured narrative emerges. And Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close plays similar games with typography, photos and a flip-book effect at the book’s close that serves as its final, haunting image. Comics may not be revolutionary in and of themselves, but their influence on other literary forms is, at this point, undeniable.

These days, write-ups in The New York Times Magazine give them a patina of respectability, which demands that the label be “graphic novel” or “comix;” whatever it takes to separate the healthy main course from the junk food. That comic-book-based film franchises like Spider-Man and X-Men are far better than most typical Hollywood tentpoles has everything to do with the fact that each has a tremendous well of source material to draw from, however pulpy. And it’s ironic, albeit unsurprising, that the films of two of the comics world’s more venerated “literary” works -- Alan Moore’s From Hell and John Wagner’s A History of Violence -- eventually reached the screen with their storylines severely truncated and/or reworked, and in each case for the worse; each film did away with practically everything about the source novel that was interesting in the first place. When businessmen and focus groups call the shots, expect only tits, gore and explosions for your dollar. (Unless that’s the book’s raison d’etre; ergo, Sin City.)

I bring up the film adaptations only because comic books and graphic novels owe much to the movies, and vice versa; both are a mash-up of literary and visual storytelling. Whereas mainstream popular filmmaking has essentially flatlined (and will continue to devolve as long as the corporate-controlled studio system remains in place), graphic novels are taking major strides in innovative directions, if only because, for the moment, it seems like the inmates are running the asylum.

If there’s an enfant terrible of the current comix scene, it’s probably Chris Ware, for better or for worse. His Quimby the Mouse, for example, is an enormous coffee-table-sized book with so much visual and literary content jammed into 56 pages you reel from sensory overload the second you open it. In his Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, panels crawl backwards, forwards, upside-down and in circles on the page, making finding the next frame just as much of a challenge as deciphering its storyline. All of this show-off technique, however, only serves the narrative, and it’s a doozy: an exquisitely sad evocation of loneliness and familial history so wrenching that at times it’s hard to keep turning the pages. Ware’s bratty, to be sure, and his reach sometimes exceeds his grasp, but at least he’s reaching to begin with.

Not all of them are impenetrable, however. Craig Thompson’s Blankets tells a very simple first-love story, between cloistered young teenagers who meet at Bible camp, with great dexterity and emotional resonance. Thompson’s wintry landscapes are evocatively rendered, and his artistic flights of fancy are mostly earned; they crescendo in an extraordinary frame where a car containing one of the young lovers drives out of the other’s life -- and off the edge of the earth. His earlier book Goodbye, Chunky Rice tells a similarly poignant tale, albeit in a more oblique fashion (here’s the moment to apply that first-book curve).

Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and its sequel have gotten a lot of press, as has Art Spiegelman, who arguably created the long-form literary graphic novel with his Maus series and, more recently, put out an amazing oversized collection called In the Shadow of No Towers, featuring his unforgettable post-9/11 New Yorker cover painting. And Alex Robinson has carved a Nick Hornby-esque niche out for himself with his books Box Office Poison and Tricked. The field of literary comics has also been helped tremendously by publishers like Atlanta-based Top Shelf Productions, who have created a kind of safe haven for up-and-coming artists to thrive; they currently boast Thompson, Robinson, Moore, Eddie Campbell, Ed Brubaker and James Kochalka among their stable.

Oh, just try one.


Anonymous said...

"tits, gore and explosions for your dollar"

From time to time, it is money well spent.

Jason Comerford said...

So true... no argument there. However I will always prefer explotation that has a sense of humor about itself. If you do the tits-gore-explosions thing with no style, no enthusiasm and no tongue jammed in cheek, the fun drains away double-quick.

Anonymous said...

I found myself reading your piece here because it connects a little with a chain of connections I’ve been following. I wrote a blog essay titled ‘pictorial literature’ at Powell’s
inspired by Audrey Niffenegger’s list of ten Illustrated books at amazon. I liked the way she regarded the graphic novel as just another kind of illustrated book.
My thoughts have advanced a little since I wrote that. I’m now looking closely at the blurry areas at the edges of ‘novel’ ‘artist’s book’ and ‘graphic novel’.
Don’t know if you’ve seen my own latest
see also
I asked Rawle why his publisher was calling “Woman’s World’ a ‘graphic novel’ and he said he didn’t know. He wanted to call it a ‘collage novel’ but they said that wasn’t a good idea.
Eddie Campbell