Come on, you want to throw pie at these guys too

table’s full
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:

5 Responses to “Come on, you want to throw pie at these guys too”

  1. 1 markus October 17, 2007 at 10:45 am

    Yes, but
    3 is wrong unless you qualify tastemakers which is precisely what Heidi failed to do. Similarly, 2 and 4 are the result of these venues gathering a specific audience which likes more highbrow work which is in turn what these venues discuss. Same goes for the other venues down to Wizard.
    5 is complete nonsense. There’s no support whatsoever for that assertion/assumption.
    If true, 6 is excessively stupid coming from someone inside the magazine business. It’s like poor Heidi never ever heard the term target audience before. There’s a reason it’s called “highbrow media” FFS.

  2. 2 Connie December 28, 2007 at 11:37 pm

    I was surprised to see both Persepolis and Maus in the history section in Borders instead of in the graphic novel section, I suppose because it is more appealing to the target audience when it’s not right next to, say, The Essential Spiderman (however, it did make Persepolis difficult to find). The same thing persists in other types of fiction that is targeted towards a “niche” audience. For example, you’ll never see Kurt Vonnegut in the science fiction section, despite the fact that Cat’s Cradle is undeniably science fiction. Another one of my favorite authors, Connie Willis, could easily be marketed as “mainstream” fiction, as her novels just barely qualify as science fiction (a couple of her novels use time travel as a plot device, but no one is marketing the Time Traveler’s Wife as science fiction…and a couple of her novels are not science fiction at all, as far as I can tell), yet she is still published by Bantam, a science fiction press because she was first published in genre magazines and that’s where her fanbase is.

    What’s strange to me is how much my (highly educated, literate, and generally open-minded) parents’ impressions are affected by publishers and magazines like the New Yorker, especially when it comes to comics.

  3. 3 giraffo January 20, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    you know, I thought a redeeming quality of the comics community was the fact that it always kept itself self aware but never pompous or arrogant. I mean, yeah, there was some squabbling between cartoonists and “comic book artists” (superhero comic book guys) but overall they were always pleased when something, no matter anything, progressed the medium and open the doors to a more free way of thinking. whatever happened to the attitude held by a lot of comic book artists/cartoonists that would revile high art and it’s snobbery? it seems to me that the community/fanbase should fight back against the (or any) divide and the spread of the cancer of snobbery before there is some kind of hipster backlash. it should be a group of professionals and audience members who can enjoy comics as a visual expression and a medium of storytelling, embracing change and letting people (because though artists create for themselves, you put it out there for PEOPLE to read, not just other professionals) decide for themselves just what they like. there are going to be people doing some things and some doing others. if that’s something you like or don’t like then that’s your stance, but stop the hate and abstract talk of “better” or “worse” for a medium.

  1. 1 Recent Comic Reads « one thousand one Trackback on November 30, 2008 at 11:40 am
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Leigh Walton talks comics and maybe other arts. (RSS)
He also works for the very excellent publisher Top Shelf Productions (which does not necessarily endorse the views and opinions, etc, herein).


Header by me. Contains an interpolation of the final panel from All-Star Superman #1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Speaking of which.

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