Sunday, December 2, 2012

All Hail the Comics Heroes


Chris Ware made several promotional posters for the "Comics, Philosophy, and Practice" at UChicago earlier this year.

Dear reader -- This thing was "in the can" in May, but went unpublished and grew dusty. Here it is now, five months later, but hopefully illustrative of something of the accelerating tide of comics' move to the mainstream. I know, I know--we've known that comics are "serious" for a long time....but there's a new urgency around the academy's acceptance of the form. This incredible meeting of comics minds was a testament to what's happening now.

Art Spiegelman’s electronic cigarette glowed neon blue as he puffed in the darkness offstage. The scene looked almost like a series of panels from the beginning of a superhero comic book: a stranger’s silhouette hangs in the shadows of an anonymous city, his face illuminated only by the tip of a Marlboro Red. As he exhales, he grumbles, “Forty years ago, we never guessed that this %@&*! would happen.”

In this particular context, “this %@&*!” was an academic conference on “Comics, Philosophy, and Practice” at the University of Chicago’s brand-new $114 million Logan Center for the Arts. Ten miles south of the NATO circus [this was the same weekend as the city-paralyzing show up at the McCormick Center--feels like a long time ago --ed.], the weekend’s symposium brought together its own group of summit-level characters—Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel, Ivan Brunetti, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Phoebe Gloeckner, Justin Green, Fran├žoise Mouly, Joe Sacco, and Carol Tyler, among others—and put them in conversation with scholars. When R. Crumb received his invitation from English professor and conference organizer Hillary Chute, he worried about boring the audience. “I try to be entertaining and not too serious or intellectual,” he wrote in a postcard (he doesn’t use email).

“This is, after all, about comic books.”

Of course, it seems like a long time since “comic books” earned recognition as a serious and intellectual medium—one that has established a following of serious and intellectual readers. Despite origin stories about underground presses in East Village lofts and homemade magazines with miniscule circulations, graphic narrative has found a safe home in university literature departments. More broadly, it seems an accepted truth that graphic novels and nonfiction represent some of our best contemporary literature, and that they deserve our closest readerly attention.

That comics count as high-art, and that everyone knows it, was driven home to me when I taught a freshman class on Bechdel’s memoir Fun Home. I asked whether anyone was surprised that we were reading something that looked very much like a comic book in a college classroom.

A comic book!

In college!

No one raised a hand, and I stood there in my tweed jacket like a balding, Hamlet-quoting square.

One can still marvel at (or lament) the speed with which comics have attained the academy’s gold star of legitimacy. But it seems more useful to try and figure out what the appropriation of comics by the university actually means for young authors, readers, and Hamlet-quoting squares. For Spiegelman, who joked about the “Faustian bargain” that admission to the ivory tower implies, it still sounds like a strange development. Justin Green, patron saint of autobiographical comics, was slightly less ambivalent. In his hypnotically soothing voice, he wondered what kind of occasion could bring together such a heavy-hitting group of comics authors.

It could be a funeral, he suggested—but then again it might be a wedding.

After all, would the academy really kill comics? Would it slice them up? Couldn’t one as easily argue that comics have already been drained of their subversive oomph by retrospectives at fancy museums and in edited anthologies?

And is Art Spiegelman really smoking e-cigarettes now?


I didn’t get many concrete answers. Instead, the weekend’s conversations became an opportunity to watch a shared vocabulary take shape—to observe sometimes-awkward negotiations (punctuated by fairly regular heckling from the Crumbs et. al.) intended to address the suspicion that characterizes any relationship between artists and critics. It’s not often that so many pioneers of an art form agree to hang out with professors for a weekend, especially when the primary item on the agenda is deciding how best to dissect their work. But aside from occasional displays of anti-academic bluster, the group seemed willing to play along and help define the terms of critical discourse, if only to satisfy themselves that the theorists wouldn’t screw it up too badly.

One might attribute this willingness to a reluctant acceptance that the border between the comics establishment and the academic establishment has blurred, and that it’s no longer worth quibbling over except as a kind of ultra-nerdy war-game—or maybe out of pure nostalgia for a moment in which the depiction of veiny genitalia in a hand-printed magazine counted as a politically subversive act. Most of these men and women have serious literary accomplishments under their belt, command respect from their imitators, and intimidate the bejesus out of college students. As evidence, I offer up any of the painfully earnest undergrads (one imagines them rehearsing in the basement men’s bathroom) quivering at a microphone to ask “Mr. Sacco” or “Ms. Barry” a question.

Regardless, comics lovers shouldn’t lose sleep over the idea that the form will lose its mojo because of its inclusion in these students’ ENGL 101 sections. The shock value has worn a bit, but the influence that the first generation of graphic novelists and memoirists have had on the work of their followers suggests several reasons why comics will grow even more vital and necessary in classrooms.   

For one thing, comics seem well suited to depictions of how contemporary ordinary life (so much of which is mediated by the web) has changed our relationship to information, and how media consumption habits transform our idea of what constitutes a self. We live in constant dialogue with image-texts, hypertexts, cat videos, lists of top-ten cities for single vegetarians, mashups, and tweets. Yet I’ve found that even as I learn how to navigate these fragments more efficiently, I find myself craving slower, more engrossing narratives. Comics force readers to slow down, perhaps even moreso than novels—to luxuriate in detailed images—even as the orientation of panels and pages can draw eyes in multiple directions and into the subjectivities of different characters. The form of comics forces readers to consider how quickly they move through a narrative: to feel the velocity of their consumption in a manner discouraged by the everyday web-browsing that takes up so much of our waking hours.

It’s possible to argue that other kinds of literature do this as effectively. But the avenues for formal experimentation in comics can be gut twisting for text-bound writers. I can’t draw, and so I spend a lot of time talking about the virtues of fiction’s capacities to connect us to one another, especially when it challenges us with new kinds of writing. I remember practically leaping for joy after reading Jennifer Egan’s PowerPoint chapter in A Visit from the Goon Squad.

How crazy to put slides in a novel!

How daring!

How beautiful and poetic and right!

But by contrast, Chris Ware is publishing his next graphic narrative Building Stories as a set of almost twenty differently sized works packaged together. The book (perhaps the fact that I just spent twenty minutes trying to decide whether to use the word “book” conveys my paralysis in describing this kind of thing) has a simple premise, neatly encapsulated on Amazon:
            [Building Stories] imagines the inhabitants of a three-story Chicago apartment building. Taking             advantage of the absolute latest advances in wood pulp technology, Building Stories is a book             with no deliberate beginning nor end, the scope, ambition, artistry and emotional             prevarication beyond anything yet seen from this artist or in this medium, probably for good             reason.

This is a work with dimensions that simply don’t seem reproducible in mere text, and it makes me wonder whether the legacy of comics’ politically subversive energy has been channeled into a kind of wild formal inventiveness. The reaction from the conference crowd and even from Ware’s fellow panelists when he showed several images from Building Stories was a collective “Holy %@&*!” [you can watch the whole panel and hear Seth's reaction: "That just makes me feel really shitty"]. To suggest that comics yield readily to traditional means of textual interpretation sounds pretty unconvincing when confronted by this kind of ambition. And yet in some ways the book more resembles a difficult theoretical text than a traditional fictional narrative.

It’s in this sense that the partnership with theorists might prove productive for practitioners of comics.

Of his own work, Ware has said, “It’s not to exasperate the reader, but simply to find new ways of telling stories that might be more in tune with how we actually experience life.” Here, he seems to flesh out a term that Spiegelman used on the first night of the conference: neosincerity. As Spiegelman described it, neosincerity entails using the “tools of irony” while still allowing the author to say what he or she means in a straightforward way. In one sense, the relationship between text and image is always ironic. Neither can convey the same message at the same time, and in comics they can work together or in opposite directions to induce an emotional effect in the reader. To navigate that relationship marks a central challenge for both writer/artist and reader.

In another sense, I’m left hoping that the ironic relationship between critic and artist might ultimately produce sincere understanding of this still-emerging form of literary art. Sure, the marriage between theory and practice in this case may be one of convenience. But that doesn’t mean it won’t work out.



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