Originally I was going to attempt to transcribe the comics criticism panel from last week’s SPX. However, since I seem to be incapable of operating a simple tape recorder, you’ll have to instead settle for me tearing into Heidi MacDonald’s now-infamous post (If you want to read about the panel, Sean Collins has a nice write-up here).
The post I’m referring to, of course, is her highly derided/regarded “Can’t Anyone Tell a Story?” jaunt (as well as the obligatory follow-up). I doubt it will surprise anyone here to find me decidedly in the “derided” camp. I found Heidi’s piece to be confusing, rambling, inaccurate and just plain off-base at best. And, even though you’re probably sick of the debate by now, I’m about to go into great detail to explain why.
A number of folks have already commented on it in depth, but there’s a couple of points I want to focus on, some of them actually dealing with comics criticism, some of them … not so much. I apologize in advance for the latter, and also in case I end up repeating what someone else said, just not as well. That’s been known to happen.
OK, let’s take it point by point:
“I’m just trying to encourage debate.” As defenses go, this lies somewhere only slightly above “I was only following orders.” As was pointed out to me by several folks last weekend, just about anyone can start “a discussion” using the most scurrilous, untenable claims. I could write a post titled “Jeff Smith is an untalented hack who kicks puppies and runs over old ladies,” fill it with lots of unsupportable arguments and yell out “There, I’ve started a discussion! Talk amongst yourselves!” as I make a mad dash for the fire exits. This type of excuse has been used to cover up all sorts of sloppy rhetoric and it needs to S-T-O-P. That dog don’t hunt no more.
You need to name names. Look, I like Heidi, really I do. She’s always struck me as a very nice person, passionate about comics and I’d be sad if anything I say here would lead her to add my name to her “forever must shun and send dead fish on holidays” list (assuming she has one).
But dagnabit, if she writes something I think is really asinine and ticks me off, then I need to say “this is asinine and ticked me off” and take the risk of hurting her feelings.
Likewise, if you think that there’s an “emphasis on a narrow canon that excludes anything tainted with the scent of imaginative storytelling,” then you need to cite some examples. Which comic snobs, exactly, don’t care for Jeff Smith? Which new cartoonists do you feel are incapable of telling a story? The Flight gang? The Mome guys? I’ve read both of Heidi’s pieces a couple of times now and I’m still not sure who exactly she’s referring to.
No one likes to be mean. No one likes to hurt someone’s feelings. Any act of creation is hard work, and it’s never fun to be the one to say that someone’s hard work was for naught, especially in the comics world, where chances are you’ll bump into that person in the flesh at some point.
But if you’re going to plant your flag in the ground and say “This is where I stand” then you need to say in no uncertain terms exactly what it is you stand against. If you didn’t like Jonathan Bennett’s story about his leg falling asleep then goddammit say so. He’ll get over it, and if he doesn’t, fuck him.
You need to define your terms. Yes, George Herriman and Stan Sakai are both storytellers, but I think we can safely agree they are very different kinds of storytellers. In fact, I think it’s safe to say Herriman was much more interested in formal play than Sakai is. Or than Caniff was for that matter.
So it’s not enough to bring out a list of venerated cartoonists and say “we should be more like these guys.” And you certainly shouldn’t be citing James Joyce, Gilbert Hernandez, Charles Schulz and Steven bloody Spielberg in the same sentence as stalwarts of storytelling. Ulysses definitely does not have the same sort of interest in linear storytelling that Raiders of the Lost Ark does.
My point is when you group disparate artists together like this you muddy the waters and confuse readers. I think that’s why so many people misunderstood Heidi’s point as being “Indie comics suck.” To avoid this sort of thing, we need to be exactly clear about the terms we use. What exactly do we mean by “traditional storytelling?” What kind of storytelling would we like to see? And how is Bone or Groo an example of that? Which brings me to …
You need to offer RELEVENT counter-examples. And plenty of them. Just as it’s important to say what you’re against, you need to explicitly state what you’re for. If you don’t care for the BAC collection, what would you have exchanged it with? Heidi’s citing of Jason towards the end of her piece was a good start, though I think I might have made a case for The Left Bank Gang instead, which, I think, was eligible for the 2007 collection.
Oops, Jason’s not American, so never mind. Perhaps there is an American creator who had work out in 2006 that might fit the bill? (hint: his name’s Tony Millionaire.)
Europe knows stories pal. “Oddly enough, this is not the case in Europe. There are some moody-autobio-finding-yourself comics in Europe, but the main schools are made up of storytellers.”
I found this sentence rather amusing, having recently read Bart Beaty’s Unpopular Culture, which talks extensively about how the current generation of European cartoonists like Lewis Trondheim and Joann Sfar have deliberately rebelled against the type of middlebrow sort of storytelling that Heidi (I think) is trumpeting here. These kind of art vs. entertainment issues exist everywhere. They aren’t especially particular to American comics.
Fort Thunder is a dead end. To be fair, Heidi backtracked from this a tad in her rebut, but still, it seems silly to me to argue this is a one-trick pony, especially after coming back from SPX, where there were seemingly tons of artists who were obviously influenced by Chippendale et. al.’s work. Some of it was awful, sure, but some of it was delightful.
More to the point, it seems to me that a number of the new cartoonists are currently attempting to find ways to incorporate the FT bag of tricks into their own, more conventional work. I see it crop up all the time, in stuff like Kevin Huizenga’s Ganges or Anders Nilsen’s The End. And, of course, Brian Ralph is a FT alum who is making some of the most straightforward fantasy comics in the indie scene today. People are still digesting and processing what Fort Thunder initially did, and I think it’s premature to call it a once and done kind of thing.
The Best American Comics of 2007 book. It’s getting late so I’m going to try to make this short. I think it’s a mistake to see a book like this as an attempt to build an “art comix” canon that ignores poor Jeff Smith and Sergio Aragones. What it is, is a book of comics advocacy.
What with all the press coverage and the movies and such, it’s easy I think to forget that most people still view comics as nerdy kid stuff. At one of my local libraries, they’re doing a lecture series on comics, and the librarian in charge confessed to me that her colleagues thought she was wasting the institution’s time and money by attempting to address such a topic.
Now let’s say you wanted to convince one of those naysayers that comics are a real honest-to-god art form. What are you going to hand them? Bone or Safe Area Gorazde? (Well, if the librarian works in the children’s section you hand them Bone, but otherwise …)
Is that unfair? Hell yeah. But the fact is, there are plenty of people who equate “Art with a capital A” with dour, down to earth realism. That’s why Crash won the Oscar instead of some, as Dick Hyacinth says, “sublimely-crafted, but ultimately straightforward and unironic fantasy.” Memoirs are hot stuff in the book world right now in case you haven’t noticed.
So, feel free to picknit BAC 2007 to your heart’s content. These “best of” books always have a huge target on their back and it’s not as though I don’t think there aren’t problems with it. But don’t ascribe motives to it that aren’t necessarily there.
Plus, you know, Chris Ware’s the editor. Are you really surprised that these are the kind of stories that Chris Ware likes?
Trumpet what you like. Finally, if you really, honestly feel that there’s a certain type of artist or genre that’s not getting its critical due, then in the name of all that’s holy get out there on the Internet and start talking about it. Hold aloft the books and creators you feel people should know about and say “You are unfairly ignoring this.”
And yeah, I know blogging is hard work. I have about a million ideas and essays for Blog@ and my own site that never see fruition due to the ever-increasing demands of real life. But the great thing about the Internet is that it gives us all the ability to become tastemakers, provided we’re eloquent enough.
Here, I’ll give you two quick, not-so-eloquent examples: Shaun Tan’s The Arrival and Kazmir Strzepek’s The Mourning Star indulge in just the sort of world-building, epic fantasy that Heidi was lamenting on her blog. The former is an eloquent analogy for the immigrant experience that in some ways may make such a journey easier to understand than your average book on Ellis Island will. The latter indulges in pure, elaborate fantasy, complete with a large, eccentric cast of characters and lengthy back story. Strzepek’s art is cartoonish and engaging and will leave you eager for the upcoming, second volume.
As long as we’re able to point out stuff like this, I really don’t think we have anything to worry about.