Monday, March 16, 2009

Comics: March To Legitimacy

One of the many reasons I have found Facebook so distracting lately (I joined two months ago) are members like Karen Green, whose Facebook notes on comics and Comic Adventures In Academia column over at are always worth a read. Her perspective as a scholar, librarian and comic fan always shed new light on her topics.

Her latest CAIA post provides an overview of the Graphic Novels and Academic Acceptance panel she moderated at the New York Comic-Con. The discussion entered into two streams, teaching comics as form worth serious study and teaching the creation of comics.

The debate is a challenging one with each person's background, personal strengths and preferences guiding what aspect they teach. The same debate continues to rage in the Film School world with the academics teaching criticism, history and how to read film while practitioners teach how to make it. I have always believed a combination of these approaches is necessary for a complete education in any art form.

For a complete write-up on that fascinating panel discussion check out Paul DeBenedetto's blog Wednesday's Child (cleverly named, I'm guessing, for the fact that new comics in North America are always delivered on a Wednesday).

The panel also discussed the continuing challenge of getting comics accepted as viable subject worthy of study. Some panelists have encountered strong resistance to adding courses on comics whereas others have avoided ghettoizing them, preferring instead to add comics here and there to their "regular" course reading lists. I'm not surprised this approach considerably lowers academic resistance.

It's a slow crawl to acceptance as an art form.

Karen recently pointed her Facebook community to the New York Times installation of a Graphic Books Bestseller List.

Apparently there is some debate as to whether the Times introduced this to keep their bestseller list "pure" of such a childish things as comics. The same cries rose up in 2007 when the Times introduced their Children's Bestseller List, arguably as a way of keeping those damned Harry Potter books off the bestseller lists to make room for real literature. An example of this point of view is this outraged column by the Huffington Post's Michael Glintz, who made some valid points in between some indignant posturing.

Imagine if the people behind the Nielsen Top 10 TV show listings decided that reality shows were "taking away" valuable attention from dramas and sitcoms. Let reality shows get their own list and the official Top 10 only include "genuine" TV shows, like CSI and House and Grey's Anatomy.

Imagine if Variety decided animated movies were just for kids and didn't belong on the box office Top Ten list, when more adult films like Knocked Up and Ocean's 13

Imagine if Billboard decided to banish country music to Nashville and reserve its list of Top Ten album for "real" music like pop, rock and hip hop.

Of course, that would be absurd. Any list of top TV shows that didn't include American Idol would be a joke. Any ranking of hit movies that ignored Shrek The Third or Ratatouille would be foolish. And any ranking of top CDs that pretended Garth Brooks and Carrie Underwood didn't exist would be bizarre. needed the space.
And yet that's exactly the status of The New York Times Bestseller list.

This isn't just about bragging rights for J.K. Rowling. This is about accuracy and fairness...and about the next Harry Potter. One major reason the books became a phenomenon in the first place was because they broke onto the New York Times
bestseller list. At many bookstores, any title that does so automatically gets placed in a prominent position and receives a hefty discount. Adults who read about the success of the books didn't have to skulk into the children's section to buy a copy. They found it right there in the front of the store next to new releases by Stephen King and John Grisham.
Vitriol aside, Glintz's argument on the Kid Lit front has validity. If literature aimed at a younger audience outsells an adult lit book, it should be above it on a best-seller list. And yes, the Harry Potter books are read by hundreds of thousands of adults as well, otherwise there's no way it would have sold so robustly. Much of the debate came form a concern over "ghettoizing" children's literature. But according to the Times article that announced the list, booksellers praised the additional list that allowed more room for more books to gain the attention a NY Times bestseller notice offers. That is hard to argue with.

Adults who read youth fare with crossover appeal (often fantasy works like Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials books or the Twilight series currently taking the world by storm) will continue to seek out those books no matter what list they are or are not on. In the continually splintering world that is today's media, having a separate list for various genres is a valuable resource and marketing tool.

I think the concern over whether a graphic books list "ghettoizes" comics is overstated. Comics is different medium than literature, sharing only the presentation in "book form". It requires a different set of linguistic and visual code-breaking to read and offers many techniques that writing alone does not. It deserves and requires its own list (or set of lists, as the Times has broken up theirs into three categories: softcover, hardcover and manga).

My main concern is how is the list calculated, since graphic novels sell the majority of their stock outside the mainstream bookseller market. To a layman like myself it appears the Times may have this covered, combing figures from a number of sources to get what may be a considered a fairly accurate reflection of sales:

Rankings reflect sales of graphic novels, for the week ending February 28, at many thousands of venues where a wide range of books are sold nationwide. These include hundreds of independent book retailers (statistically weighted to represent all such outlets); national, regional and local chains; online and multimedia entertainment retailers; university, gift, supermarket, discount department stores and newsstands. In addition, these rankings also include unit sales reported by retailers nationwide that specialize in graphic novels and comic books.
The subject of categorizing the lists properly is touched upon by another librarian, Robin Brenner, in this round table chat found on her Good Comics For Kids blog at Yes, the lists will likely be dominated by Marvel and DC for the foreseeable future, possibly creating a public perception that comics are still super-hero books aimed at children. But that's merely a factor of the publishing and marketing reach of the big two. I believe we will see the subject matter and type of graphic novels bringing in the big numbers slowly grow to include more challenging work. What can I say? I'm in a Pollyanna mood today. :)

On Facebook, Green summed up the process of gaining acceptance thusly:

Based on a comment made by Bill Savage during our NYCC panel, I recently looked into the process by which the novel became a subject for academic study. According to one article, massive popular sales led to reviews in literary journals; the reviews led to acquisitions by academic libraries and the novel's introduction to an academic community; critical scholarship followed. This was in the 18th century.

Sound familiar?
Very familiar, Karen. So we move forward, step by step.

In my view, the first huge step, and by step I mean breakthrough, that propelled comics onto the literati radar came from the tremendous commercial and critical success of Art Spiegelman's Maus. Spiegelman had street cred among cartoonists for his underground comicx work, the art world due his publication Raw, and the literary through work with prestigious magazines like the New Yorker. His unique position straddling so many worlds enabled him to gain a toehold for his unique, cartoon memoir.

The Pulitzer Prize Committe was impressed but ended up giving Spiegelman a special award, finding his work hard to classify. I can almost see their confused faces. "Gee, it looked like comics, but the effect on me was like having read powerful literature What do we do now?" Maus raised the level of whether comcis were true to a true debate in the critical world. In the Maus write up for the "Witness& Legacy - Contemporary Art about the Holocaust" website, Stephen Feinstein describes art critic Adam Gopnik's attempts to wrestle with this question in the pages of the New Republic (
"Comics and Catastrophe," New Republic, 22 June l987):

Is Maus art? The art critic Adam Gopnik has tried to answer this interesting question:
If you ask educated people to tell you everything they know about the history and psychology of cartooning, they will robably offer something like this: cartoons (taking caricature, political cartooning, and comic strips all together as a single form) are a relic of the infancy of art, one of the earliest forms of visual communication (and therefore, by implication, especially well-suited to children); they are naturally funny and popular; and their gift is above all for the diminutive.
Gopnik goes on to suggest the truth is actually the opposite and that cartoons represent "a relatively novel offspring of an extremely sophisticated visual culture."
I personally suspect the success of Michael Chabon's Pulitzer Prize winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavelier and Clay, and the author's subsequent defences of everything comic and pulpy in magazines and online articles was the next huge catalyst that shook up many people's perception of the comic art form as being an actual ART form.

Even the Times early review of the book by Ken Kalfus, can't help but apologize for the comic book roots of the tale with grudging acknowledgments suggesting Chabon elevates the form.

Despite the creative straitjackets within which the cartoonists worked, Chabon plausibly identifies in the successful comic book many of the qualities of genuine artistry: craftsmanship, provocative themes and the artist's personal investment... ...In ''The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,'' Chabon may romanticize the comic book, but it's unillustrated prose that he makes love to... ...Novels conventionally draw a good deal of their power from surprising plot turns. ''The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay'' fulfills its quota of surprises, but most of its unexpectedness resides, comic-book-style, in its challenging situations, lushly written, in which you know beforehand that the heroes will prevail. It would make a nice comic book series -- the cousins square-jawed and ham-fisted -- but the depth of Chabon's thought, his sharp language, his inventiveness and his ambition make this a novel of towering achievement.
Amt Befner accomplished a more insightful summary of the pros and cons of Kavelier and Clay's comic book and pulp inspirations in her review, despite at one point succumbing to the tendency to add "Bat! Bif! Bam!" sound effects to her article, as almost every journalist with little experience of comic books has done for the last forty years, thanks to the Batman television series of the sixties.

Their harebrained schemes lead to fame and fortune, often in a matter of days. Their loves are requited. They hobnob with the likes of Orson Welles, Salvador Dali and Joseph Cornell (whom Joe is said to resemble, in that both are "striking out for the sublime in a vessel constructed of the commonplace, the neglected, the despised"). Stan Lee knows their name. Greedy bosses prove to be good men with the boys' best interests in their hidden hearts of gold, and their enemies are foiled in the nick of time. This leads to some rather implausible last-minute saves, including one especially improbable sequence in which a well-timed phone call to Eleanor fucking Roosevelt (someone happens to have her number) saves the day...

...Luckily, the reader loves Sammy and Joe, too. They are lovable. (In fact, reading this book makes one wonder why so many authors are so ready to saddle their creations with ennui, thwarted ambitions and disillusionment.) Their last-minute saves and superhuman luck and pluck, moreover, are central to the theme of the book, which is the beauty and necessity of escape in all its forms...
I believe that Kavelier and Clay's popularity, critical success and Chabon's highly public love for comics as a medium put an acceptable, articulate literary face to a much-maligned form. In the aforementioned NYCC Graphic Novels and Academic Acceptance panel, blogger Paul Debenedetto describes Northwestern University professor Bill Savage's approach to teaching comics this way:

Bill's approach to teaching comics is twofold. First, what has done while teaching comics is to never put a class together that was "just comics", because it turned into a niche course students took to have fun, which wouldn't have any real academic merit and, as Savage said, "would get me fired"; thus, he picks his battles carefully...

...Second, he tries to integrate comics into courses he teaches based on subject matter (
100 Bullets in a course on crime fiction, The Golem's Mighty Swing in a course on baseball) in order to make some change toward teaching comics. And he says it has worked. A lot of his peers have begun to teach books like Maus, which besides being a useful text for a class on WWII and the Holocaust, helped bring comics toward respectability by taking on such incredibly serious subject matter in an art form that was considered unrespectable. Now he has students that write Masters Theses on comics. Academic respectability is on a certain level a matter of "just doing it".
I believe Chabon's work helped legitimize comics in much the same way, sneaking a celebration of the form and history into a poetic, well-written literary work. The point may be arguable but since the release of the Chabon book, the Times itself has come a long way.

Take for example, this 2002 Nick Hornby article, "Draw What You Know", in which the popular author reviewed comics for the Times. In it ,Hornby struggled with the perception of comics as an acceptable, legitimate art form and spends a good portion of his review explaining himself.

Jump ahead two years and we find the Times publishing a lengthy 2004 article from Charles McGrath. "Not Funnies" is essentially, a defense of the form; a line in the snobby sand. It takes a great deal of time explaining why the comics form is one to respected by the literati and takes great pains to cover artists whose work reflects a more personal, artistic or journalistic perspective. McGrath came loaded for bear, basing the article on his group interview with respected creators Seth, Chester Brown, Adrian Tomine, Joe Sacco and Art Speigelman, who hosted the coffee clatch at his Soho apartment (pictured below in photo by Jeff Riedel of the Times).

Since then, the New York Times has provided respectful comic coverage for several years most notably from writer George Gene Gustines.

All in all, I have to throw my hat in with Karen on this new Times Bestseller list. Like me, she is excited at the prospects:

...whatever the cause the effect will be significant. They've now given an official imprimatur to graphic narrative. Which is AWESOME.
Debenedetto followed up his New York Comic-Con coverage with a terrific interview with Karen Green. you can find here, at his Wednesday's Child blog.

Beavers Up!

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