Joe Sacco, Seth, Art Spiegelman, Chester Brown and Adrian Tomine
Heidi MacDonald’s much-maligned piece about Chris Ware’s Best American Comics 2007 book for Houghton-Mifflin is the talk of the blogosphere. She’s put up another post processing the attacks and defending herself a bit.
I think I have an idea what she’s getting at, and I’ve spun my assumptions about her thesis into a chance to lay out my own ideas.
If I may:
1) Chris Ware, as revealed by his selections for this book, enjoys “comica verite.”
1a) Not too surprising, considering he’s Chris Ware.
2) The New York Times, the New Yorker, and the series editors at H-M tend to favor “comica verite” as well, as revealed by their choices regarding which cartoonists to hire/promote (Pekar, Ware, Bechdel, Kelso, Satrapi, Brunetti, the Spiegelman smoking-rooftop cabal).
3) The NYT, the New Yorker, and the big New York publishing houses are among the most prestigious and influential tastemakers in American art & lit.
4) Plenty of “rip-roaring”* cartoonists (Smith, Aragones, Rugg, O’Malley, Vaughan, Moore, Tezuka) have gotten critical praise, but this praise has largely come from critics outside the highbrow arena: bloggers, industry pros, PWCW, librarians, Entertainment Weekly, G4, etc.
5) Heidi is arguing, I think, that H-M’s selection of two “verite” editors in a row for their “Best American Comics” series creates a false impression that “verite” is the only category of comics worth reading.
6) She also appears to be more generally lamenting the highbrow media’s infatuation with “verite” to the exclusion of the “rip-roaring.”
7) She has expressed a slight preference for the rip-roaring over the “verite,” but never suggested that one should exterminate the other.
8) It’s entirely possible that the respect of the highbrow lit world is a pointless thing to long for. Jeff Smith is doing okay for himself. (that is, he is making money hand over fist, thanks to kids and librarians and comic lovers, and no thanks to the Snooty Buttoos)
8a) On the other hand, I’m pretty sure that The NYT’s comic page pays better than Dark Horse Presents.
[* Heidi never used the term “rip-roaring”; I’m using it as a shorthand for “comics where a page-turning story is central to the appeal”]
As Kyle Baker said, the issue of audience is central. But it seems like prestige is an equally valid issue here. As my lit theory prof taught me, the source and nature of a message communicates just as much as the message itself.
This doesn’t address her issues with the Fort Thunder collective (oblique pomo aesthetes seemingly disinterested in story) or the Flight crew (good old-fashioned pretty pictures & fun but pretty contentless so far), who are neither storytellers nor highbrow darlings. No reason to demand rip-roaring plots from everybody, although you can sort of tell that lots of the Flight kids would like to write one.
In any event, it’s clear from my list of “non-highbrow tastemakers” above that there are plenty of people to pander to aside from the New Yorker. The “real mainstream” is huge. So in my mind, the remaining items on the to-do list are:
1) Continue to battle the false perception that comics have two branches, Spider-Man and Optic Nerve (which keeps Spider-Man fans from trying anything “alternative,” and more importantly, keeps millions from trying comics at all). All of us fall into this trap sometime, but it’s a decades-old mentality that’s completely obsolete.
2) Improve distribution channels for the “real mainstream” so that you don’t have to impress Art Spiegelman to get into Barnes & Noble. Lots of progress made on this one; long way to go yet.
EDIT: Interesting follow-ups and related links: