Monday, October 15, 2007

Comic Snobs!

Heidi MacDonald's post about the "Best American Comics of 2007" anthology is a good one and it (and the 100+ comments that follow) deserves far more time and care in reading than my Monday-afternoon skim between gigs allows.

But in a nutshell what's she sorta saying is that the anthology, edited by Chris "Jimmy Corrigan" Ware, features a bunch of auto-biographical "angst" pieces and doesn't really touch upon alternate types of comic book material. For example, stories that are not auto-bio angst pieces. Stuff by Jeff Smith or Stan Sakai. Stories. Story stories.

And also, she suggests,

" wouldn’t catch any comics snob worth his or her salt saying they thought Jeff Smith was a great American cartoonist."

We're back, in a sense, to the "high art"/"low art"debate again.

If the piece of art -- say, a comic book, popular novel, or painting -- functions primarily as a narrative, it is "low art."

If the piece of art is a subjective abstract collection of feelings and sentiments done in a roundabout way -- it is "high art."

And as the comic book medium becomes more accepted in "high-brow" circles & academia, this debate will only get more heated.

I mean, in 50 years, what will be considered English class "required reading" in terms of graphic novels?

Chris Ware or Jack Kirby?

Will Jack Kirby be considered a great master of the medium? Or kitsch?

The whole thing tangentially reminds me of how I was a little girl and scoured my Encyclopedia Britannica for mention of my favorite book series, "Nancy Drew." I couldn't find it anywhere under "literature," so I had to enlist the help of my Mom in the search.

Finally, she found what she was sure was the citation. It didn't mention "Nancy Drew" by name. But it read something like:

"And in the post-war era we had these shit throwaway mystery and adventure books for teenagers that are not even worth mentioning by name here."

And now I'm also remembering visiting a bookstore in London with a school chum -- back in my academic days -- and picking up a copy of Stephen King's "The Shining" to buy and my friend saying "Don't buy that -- it's low-class."

I bought a book on literary criticism instead. I still haven't read that f**ker.


  1. Anonymous12:52 PM

    Small irony alert: King edited this year's Best American Short Stories from the same book series.

  2. I think Kirby will first be the Lovecraft of the medium, then be the Dickens.

  3. The best way to get out of the high art/low art debate is to step back from it and reject it's premise and change the question to: am I being an asshole?
    Good rule of thumb: if you're agreeing with anything Art Spiegelman says, then the answer is "Yes, you are being an asshole."

  4. What about those few of us who equally love King Kirby and Chris Ware? Are we medium art? ;)

  5. The Shining was pretty bad too. You'd have been better off spending your money on a Popsicle.

  6. high artists are artists who are too lazy to make their work accessible.

  7. low artists are artists who are too lazy to make their art mean something.

  8. High artists are Ditko in the '60s.

    Low artists are Greg Land.


  9. Reminds me of an article I read recently about SF and the literati on Bookslut, and one part really spoke to me: "Indeed, Kurt Vonnegut received scathing reviews for some of his novels as the worst kind of sci-fi dreck (from Kirkus) until it was realized by the cognoscenti that it was actually the best kind of postmodernist literature."

    Which is just another way of saying that the cognoscenti had their heads too far up their asses to know genius when they saw it.

  10. "I mean, in 50 years, what will be considered English class 'required reading' in terms of graphic novels?

    Chris Ware or Jack Kirby?"

    First of all, I think this is a false choice. Under the right circumstances, both should be on the required reading list for English classes using graphic novels.

    However, the biggest obstacles I find for teaching graphic novels in English classes (which I do every semester) are availability and accessibility. I teach Jimmy Corrigan, as one example, not only because it's a great work of literature, but also because it is "teachable"--that is, available in an affordable format for my students to purchase, and one that can fit into a normal syllabus. This holds true for a lot of contemporary "indy" creators: Dan Clowes, Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel, the Hernandez brothers, etc.--all have books that I can put on a syllabus along with 6 or 7 other novels (graphic or otherwise) without breaking the bank for students.

    What work by Jack Kirby meets that criteria? I wouldn't ask my students to buy a $50 hardcover collection of Fourth World material that only provides one-fourth of a story, and other than that, there isn't that much Kirby material in print that would be useful or accessible to teach. Choosing one of the Marvel Essentials books could work, but compromises have to be made their with the black and white format. This holds true for a lot of mainstream narrative comics in general, especially the work of some of the great creators. Norton is starting to publish teachable editions of Eisner's work, and I hope that other publishers follow suit.

    For the most part, though, "academia" has moved past the "high art/low art" debate these days, especially because it was seen as a means of excluding a lot of works by marginalized writers. However, for comics to enter this world in a more meaningful way, more work needs to be done by publishers to put out teachable editions that can easily be used in the classroom. A reasonably priced anthology of some of the great creators would especially be helpful.

  11. "The Shining," like all Stephen King, is shit. Plain and simple. Dumb literature for people who either don't want to think or can't think.

    Jeff Smith is one of the greatest cartoonists *ever*. The only person disagreeing with that is Heidi MacDonald.

    Speaking of the walking bitch, her article is absolutely pointless, like everything she writes. Chris Ware says in the freaking *introduction* that all he picked was angst filled autobiographical stories. He made no attempt to find the best stuff.

    The problem isn't high brow vs low brow. The problem is overreaction to non-issues.

  12. It's tough for me to fight for the regular guy with Stephen King as my stalwart. I wouldn't know if his stories suck because I don't find his writing accessible. I find it painful. I've tried and tried again to get through even one page and always failed. It's just so choppy and cliche ridden... I can't read it. I want to... but I can't bring myself to do it.

    That said, "Lexi D." Word, sister.
    WORD! 5th Graders read Vonnegut and love him and anyone who says he isn't deeper than the oceans is a fool. That, my friends, is real genius.

  13. I'm a book retailer at a CUNY school and I already see some of the future canon shaking itself out. Mostly when faculty assign comics (100% from the English department; we haven't gotten to the point where Joe Sacco is being taught in History or Sociology), it sorts by age. The older, tenured faculty assign whatever the New Yorker tells them is an important comic. Invariably, there are several classes teaching Persepolis and Maus. These professors emphatically do not read comics for pleasure (and, honestly, to an outside observer, seem to read literature, period, for ideological content rather than pleasure).

    There is another, younger generation of faculty, typically underpaid twentysomething adjuncts. Some of them are comics nerds. They might assign interesting, albeit conservative, choices like "Watchmen"; things they can sneak by their superiors, I reckon. Grant Morrison's "Arkham Asylum" and Talbot's "The Tale of One Bad Rat" are assigned with some regularity. Once in a while something kooky like Lea Hernandez' "Rumble Girls" will be taught.

    There was a "comics and graphic novels" course offered here last semester, and the professor assigned to teach it, a thirtysomething postgrad of otherwise unimpeachable qualifications, had not read one single comic or graphic novel before the class started. Or just Maus. Mostly she came in here and had us comic nerds serve up a stack of recommendations to give her a crash course in the subject. So while I was happy the class existed, I wondered how the students would feel about their tuition paying for an "expert" with only two weeks experience in the subject.

    The will to teach these works is there, but the people who teach lit courses are waiting for some Academic Authority to tell them what's okay to like. It's not really different from any other literature. Comics really needs some imposingly lauded multicultural authors like Jhumpa Lahiri, Maxine Hong Kingston, Edwidge Danticat, Jane Austen, Chinua Achebe and Toni Morrison to get it in the doors of academe (which is why Persepolis gets a free pass).

    Sometimes I fantasize about the syllabus I'd make for a "comics" course.

  14. @ Kenny

    Wait, I don't think Heidi disagrees at all with the proposition that Smith is one of the greats, unless I drastically misread her screed.

  15. No, she said Smith is a star.

    Also, lets have the syllabus, FMF.

  16. Kirby is the Philip K Dick of comics.

    Defined parts of the medium early in his career even if he didn't know he was doing it, everyone tries to rip him off or make money off his memory...

    But all the more fascinating was the end of his career, when he was so completely out of touch with reality that his work could only be called "magic".

    I would argue that there's more "to" Kirby's work because he's trying to be so many things at once and it creates so many different levels of meaning that...

    A Ware, just writing about himself and what's in his head, could begin to touch.

    There's something to be said for the dude or lady trying to do both art AND craft and the special levels of significance that come forth from that struggle.

    Art-for-art's-sake often becomes one-level and masturbatory because there's no forces struggling against it.

    Does this make any sense?

  17. Yeah, ok, sure:

    I tried to limit myself to $160, which turned out to be unrealistic given a 14 or 15 week semester when you're going to be reading AT LEAST one work per week. Classes in YA fiction/children's lit run into the same problem, in that the books cost about the same as "regular" books, but can be finished much, much quicker. And the fact that comics are so seldom assigned means there are few to no used copies floating around out there (I know), so students would almost certainly wind up having to buy new. This is also assuming I'd be assigning a smallish xeroxed course pack to go along with the primary readings. In no particular order:

    1. Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. $22.95.
    2. The Watchmen by Alan Moore. $19.99.
    3. Krazy & Ignatz 1925-1926: "There is a Heppy Land Furfur A-waay" by George Herriman. $14.95.
    4. The Best of the Spirit by Will Eisner. $14.99.
    5. The New Gods by Jack Kirby. $11.95.
    6. Kafka by R. Crumb. $14.95.
    7. Ex Machina Vol. 1 by Brian K. Vaughan. $9.99.
    8. Usagi Yojimbo Vol. 1 by Stan Sakai. $15.95.
    9. The Essential Spider-Man Vol. 1 by Stan Lee. $16.99.
    10. American Splendor by Harvey Pekar. $16.95.
    11. Wonder Woman: The Greatest Story Ever Told, edited by ???. $19.95.
    12. Birds of Prey: Sensei & Student by Gail Simone. $17.99.
    13. Romance Without Tears edited by John Benson. $22.00.
    14. Showcase Presents: House of Mystery Vol. 1 by Len Wein. $16.99. (Vol. 1 is OP)

    = $236.59

  18. So all you have to caveat it is with is a statement that it has to be a grad class, & you're gold! GOOOOOllllllddddddddd.

  19. ford mf--

    I like the mix that this syllabus would bring to such a class. I'd definitely be all over that class if I were a student, but, as I mentioned as my main concern in my earlier post, that is one steep price tag. I also think that 14 books in 14 weeks would be too much to try and cover with any depth. A week and a half on McCloud, two on Spider-Man, 1.5 on Watchmen, and 3 weeks together on romance and mystery genres would be my recommendations.

    As a point of comparison, I generally spend two weeks on V for Vendetta when I teach that.

    I also have some qualms about using black and white reprints of work that was originally in color, but there really isn't a good alternative if you want to use the Spider-Man, New Gods, and mystery comics.

  20. I thought Kirby was already kitsch.

    I really love Kirby's output - particularly his 70s DC stuff, Kamandi is just wonderful and magical . . . but, let's be honest here, he is not a great writer. He is a creative writer and a charming writer, but he is way too clunky and wooden to be required in any great literature class. I think his stuff is often made out to be better than it is because his work stands out as being on its own wavelength in a sea of the same. In the context of what comics offered, Kirby was so whacked out that you couldn't help but love it - and love him for daring to show some personality. But that hardly makes it great literature.

  21. Er...then what exactly DOES make great literature?

  22. A skillful command of the language one writes in, to start with.

  23. That syllabus needs to sample "Love & Rockets" to be truly complete. There are some lower priced books collecting the first volume of that series, split into Jaime and Gilberto offerings. Other than that glaring omission, it's pretty solid.

  24. I would take away one of the 2 Crumbs comics from the list (actually both, I can't stand Crumb but I know that's just me) and replace it with something by Tomini or Cloves. I would also exchange Spider-Man with The Incredible Hulk Hulk has more depth and existential qualities than the relatively superficial Spider-Man.

  25. Late to the party, but since this is a greatest-hits week and I missed this the first time, what the heck? The thing that irritates me is that even though I think MacDonald is on the right track, she says this:

    "I don’t blame Chris Ware for putting together a book of his friends with material he likes — hey, he’s earned it and it’s a fine book."

    Apologist talk. I blame him. I blame him a lot. I guess I'm an ignorant jerk for not knowing his work well enough to understand how he's "earned" it, but even if I did I think I'd still consider it his failure as an editor that he was essentially unable to look beyond the end of his own metaphorical city block to select the best comics for the year.

    I'm pretty sure more is expected of the Best American Short Stories editors than to stake out a tiny little area of literature that just happens to feature their friends and immediate colleagues and their own area of interest. (Or hey! maybe not- I'll have to check some of them out. If that generally is the case, well, the hell with it. I'll just assume that the titles of these anthologies are blatant bloody lies and move on.)