Archive for the 'canons' Category

Raymond Briggs and other things I don’t know a lot about

Caleb Mozzocco has a nice post surveying some of Raymond Briggs’ books, and describing the “aha” moment when he realized that the mind behind that trippy Snowman movie from his childhood should be ranked with the great graphic novelists.

The final book I read was When The Wind Blows, a 1982 book that blew me away. … By the time I was finished, I was downright shocked that I had never heard of it—or Briggs in terms of a graphic novelist—before. Why wasn’t this mentioned in the same breath as Watchmen, Maus and The Dark Knight Returns, the holy trinity of transformative works that people are always citing as the tectonic shift in the comics medium?

Funnily enough, Paul Gravett’s book GRAPHIC NOVELS does precisely that — places When the Wind Blows in Gravett’s canon of 30 or so essential GNs, then links it to thematically similar works. Considering that Gravett is (in my limited understanding) basically the key figure in the modern British graphic novel scene, it’s a fascinating illustration of the differences between the British and North American comics cultures.

But I can relate to a lot of Caleb’s post. I remember there was a day, during one of the collegiate summers I spent at my parents’ house, when I literally went down to the shelf where the old beloved children’s books were kept (old editions of Narnia and Tolkien and Gary Paulsen and such), found The Snowman, flipped through it to find my suspicions confirmed, and brought it back upstairs with me to place onto my comics shelf. At this very moment it’s in my bedroom standing next to Chester Brown’s Louis Riel. (Amusingly, it also has a “Merry Christmas, Leigh; I love you” inscription from my aunt dating to 1987, complete with the signature of two-year-old Leigh.)

Since my own rediscovery and reclassification of The Snowman, I’ve seen Briggs as a graphic novelist who was never regarded in those terms because he never participated in the comics scene. He’s too popular to be a graphic novelist. By that I mean, for some reason his work is something that the general public can easily embrace without any of the qualms that keep them from embracing a “comic book,” and since he’s been selling gangbusters without being classed with comics, there’s never been any motive for him to make the connection. More cynically: he escaped the comics ghetto.

I was sorry to read in the Guardian that some abusive contracts seem to have kept him from enjoying the profits of his success, though. Here I assumed in the Real Books industry things were different.

I mentally classify Briggs with Edward Gorey and maybe a couple others — people who spent the 20th century hacking through the same jungle as the “canonical” graphic novelists, but independently rather than in affiliation with Team Comix. Interesting how, say, Jules Feiffer makes it into the canon but somebody like Shel Silverstein doesn’t quite (though both are incredibly popular).

I dunno, maybe that’s my subjective take based on historical accidents like whose rights were available for a recent Fantagraphics collection and whose weren’t. Well, not to mention that Feiffer wrote the book on early comic book culture… but I digress.

What’s so interesting about this at the moment is that as the “graphic novel”/”comic book” label has become Hot Stuff in the mainstream, whether we’ll see more attempts to reconceptualize the great cartoonists who found success outside of those labels. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home strikes me as a book that would have completely avoided the comics scene altogether if it had been published ten years ago — i.e. she would have been another Gorey or Briggs — but we claimed it as “one of ours” and her publisher was happy to position it that way. In 2006, it was the right move. Fantagraphics has been treading an interesting line with the Peanuts edition, framing it primarily as a Great American Comic Strip and Hey Remember Pigpen? but with subtle hints of connection to the contemporary Graphic Novel hotness.

I find these questions of identity endlessly fascinating. Not the tedious debate of What’s In and What’s Out — I’m easy, as far as I’m concerned it’s All In — but the way some things get accepted as Comics and others remain invisible. We encounter these things in such different contexts that sometimes it takes a crossover moment (Gravett covering Briggs, Maus winning the Pulitzer, Marvel publishing ElfQuest, my public library shelving ElfQuest next to Tintin and Asterix, Marvel publishing Frank Cho, Marvel publishing Gary Panter, Dark Horse publishing Nicholas Gurewitch, Disney Adventures publishing Bone, Scholastic publishing Bone, Pantheon publishing Posy Simmonds, Playboy publishing the author of The Giving Tree, Top Shelf publishing the creator of Earthworm Jim, Tom Spurgeon covering editorial cartoonists, etc) to force people to reevaluate their categories.

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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:


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).

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