Every once in a while I come across a column or essay that makes me sit up and take notice. Usually because every fiber in my being cries out, “No. Nope. Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.”
Jennifer de Guzman’s column last weekend for the soon to be no more Comic World News was one of those instances. Not that it was incoherent or poorly written. I just flat-out don’t agree with it.
In the column, de Guzman talks about her love for canonical literature and wonders why comics doesn’t have it’s own literary canon or “hall of fame”:
Comics are such a new medium that there really isn’t a canon for them. There are a few essentials whose titles everyone in comics trots out when faced with talking about comics-as-literature, sure. But how long can you keep citing Maus? (It won a Pulitzer, you know.) And what does Maus have to do with contemporary works in the same medium? And from what traditions in the medium did it arise? This is my problem when I read comics — in my mind, each work is solitary; it does not stand with its peers, working on similar themes with different nuances, adding to a conversation.
Literature and the literary canon didn’t happen by accident. Writers consciously engaged with their society and culture, as well as others who practiced their craft. Schools of thought formed; individual visions of philosophical and cultural subjects emerged. Can the same be said of comics? Do the ties between one generation and the next ever move out of the superficial realm of influence and into the active engagement of conversation?
Sure they do. As a matter of fact, I can draw a direct line from the EC artists of the 1950s to the underground movement of the ’60s and ’70s to Love and Rockets to Fun Home. I’m not just talking about aping superficial things like the way OEL artists draw all their characters with big eyes and spiky hair and miss all the subtler storytelling stuff. I’m talking about exactly the sort of generational conversation and influence that de Guzman is referring to.
But my broader point is that there are and have been critical canons in the comics world for quite some time. In fact, there have been several different canons, depending upon what sort of comics you like, which may be part of the problem. For a very long time, for example, your average mainstream comic canon looked something like this:
- Jack Cole’s Plastic Man
- CC Beck’s Captain Marvel
- Will Eisner’s the Spirit
- Carl Barks’ Donald Duck stories
- John Stanley’s Little Lulu tales
- EC comics, especially Kurtzman’s Mad
- Kirby and Lee’s Fantastic Four
- Lee and Ditko’s Spider-Man.
I’m obviously omitting a few, but you get the idea.
If you were a comic strip fan, however, your list would look something like this:
- Little Nemo
- Gasoline Alley
- Krazy Kat
- Little Orphan Annie
- Dick Tracy
- Terry and the Pirates
Moving on, your alt-comics list would look like this:
- Zap comix
- Love and Rockets
- Acme Novelty Library
Again, I’m oversimplifying things, but hopefully you understand what I’m getting at, which is that there are a number of works that have been canonized for decades now already by fans and scholars alike. (Whether those works deserve their place on the mantle is another issue entirely.)
Note that these are as much historical canons as they are literary ones, by which I mean they are noted as much as for their historical significance as they were their aesthetic value. That’s the way these things tend to work.
As I said, part of the confusion over the existence of an actual comics canon or not may be that, unless you were one of those rare birds who didn’t codify their comic art, these various lists were rarely integrated. We tend to be very selective in our comics reading and — here’s the one point I will cede to de Guzman — because we aren’t taught to look outside our sphere of interest, either in academic institutions or critical tomes or just at the local shop, the choice pickings can seem hopelessly slim at times. (I think that will change as more and more colleges and K-12 schools start introducing comics into their curriculum, something I’m starting to see more and more of each year.)
Canonization is a tricky thing. Too many people take a “best of” list, especially when it comes from a benighted source, as gospel rather than view it as a constant evolving thing. I remember all too well the outcry when The Comics Journal published their list of the best comics of the 20th century way back in issue #210. Offended parties regarded the list as some sort of final word from TCJ rather than the start of a much-needed discussion.
In fact, I’d hazard a guess that part of the current backlash against Ware, the “Best American Comics” series, and the alt-comix crowd in general, is due to a fear that Ware et. al. are attempting to canonize certain types of comics at the expense of their own, personal favorites.
I want to address another point de Guzman brings up and that’s the lack of critical discourse regarding comics:
I think I might have come up with a theory about why this is so (smudgy and half-formed, as I said, so please indulge me): We don’t see more literary quality in comics being published today because too few critics treat comics as serious literature and art, critically reading and judging them without reference to non-literary works who happen to share the same format. I’m disappointed when I see “cultural critics” like Jeff Jensen, who recently wrote an essay in Entertainment Weekly about his love of comics, elevating the very genre that keeps comics from being taken seriously: superhero comics. (I know, I know, we don’t look to EW for high culture, but, really, was that the best they could give comics?) True comics advocates are not glorified fanboys. If the image of comics in society is that of source material for the latest summer blockbuster, why would anyone who wants to produce something of literary and artistic merit turn to comics as their medium? We’re lucky to get the few creators we have who have looked for and recognize literary merit in comics and endeavor to emulate it. If we’re going to get more of them, we need comics critics who treat the medium seriously, who, instead of glorifying the comics of their childhood and adolescence, know how to read comics and write about from as real literary critics.
I think de Guzman is far too pessemistic on this note. Looking around, it’s hard not to notice the number of intelligent, perceptive people writing about comics today, both on the Internet and off. I wouldn’t have started this column if I thought otherwise. Everyone and their uncle cites Jog, Doug Wolk and Tom Spurgeon, but there’s also Sean Colllins, the Thought Balloonists guys, everyone at Savage Critics and lots and lots of other people that I’m going to regret not including here.
Ok, de Guzman was talking about the media at large and not folks who operate within the comics community. Fair enough. Here’s the thing though. I write for the mainstream media (in my day job). So does Doug Wolk. So does Calvin Reid. So does Brigid Alverson. So do a host of other people and . Sure there’s plenty of pap and thoughtless reviews from bloggers and reporters who spew out ill-thought out opinions like piss at a beer festival. But I have definitely noticed a sea change in the way we talk about comics recently and it’s not just confined our own little Web-friendly circle.
I’m not saying we should be resting on our laurels or worry about these issues. They are important. But I think a wider perspective is needed in order to appreciate that things aren’t as bleak as de Guzman would have you think they were.