Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Comics Canon Question

PaulT (aka: @placeslost) forwarded me a very interesting article.  Its a discussion of how a canon of known, quality comics is sort of percolating with folks during urbane drawing room conversations (I guess.  This has never happened to me.).  Whether or not there's an agreed-upon core group of classics in comics at this time is an interesting question, especially in a medium so young that seems to change tastes and values about every 10 years.

I'm going to risk some flames here and say the following:
Dear former Lit Major, 
I am so glad you read Ghost World that one time, and that thanks to the movie and profile you read somewhere, you're passingly familiar with Marjani Sartapi.  Because its now "hip", you'd like to talk comics and you know I read comics.  While I appreciate your background as a reader of Jane Austen and The Canterbury Tales, reading two or three comics and having a former boyfriend who was "really into Batman" makes you an interested tourist, and I welcome you, but please be patient (and, yes, we're all already aware of the homosexual undertones of Batman and Robin, so, thanks).   Also, please stop correcting me.  It's rude and weird and that person writing the article you keep referring to about "important comics" was also clearly new to comics to those of us not new to comics.  I am sad to say that what you saw there was a lot of enthusiasm, not the voice of experience.  Pop culture writers suddenly compiling lists online - especially about comics - doesn't actually mean anything.   
Trust me.
There's a lot that's going to go into a comics discussion that will, likely seem befuddling and not necessarily make sense.  Especially when we start talking about the relative merits of Jimmy Olsen comics or talk about Scrooge McDuck as a major literary character.
Comics are not books anymore than oil paintings are sculptures or a photograph of a horse is a horse.  I beg your patience.  Things are going to get weird.

The writer of this article seems like a semi-serious reader and lists his top 5 - seemingly off the top of his head - picks, and its an interesting assortment.
  • Maus: A Survivor's Tale
  • Preacher
  • The Sandman
  • Transmetropolitan
  • Watchmen
I'm not sure I'm in agreement, but what the list did do was get me to think a bit.

I say there's nothing like a good soak to get the wheels turning.

Firstly, 4 of the 5 are published by DC Comics, 3 of them from DC's Vertigo imprint.  4 of the 5 are written by folks from the UK, but more or less American comics.  All are written and largely drawn by men, and I'd argue that there's a certain testosterone and nihilism factor to the author's suggestions.  It also excludes work pre-late-80's (or, roughly 50-70 years of the medium's existence) and stops about ten years ago.  It purposefully ignores well-established superheroes, and is a nod to the fact that non-DC or Marvel comics exist without stepping outside the sort of Miramax, easy-to-locate and access factor of Maus.*

Moreover, the author doesn't really talk about form or narrative design in depth.  Nor do I all that often because he's likely a bit like me and trained to talk about narrative, but not trained to talk about design and art.

In fact, from context clues, I'd guess this author looks a lot like me.  Probably a white dude between 33-40, but who (unlike me) has an editor looking for content and who said "yeah, sure.  Write about comics.  That'll be neat.".

This is what I find so difficult about suggesting any sort of canon for comics.  I'm not sure it exists.  And as much as I like the work here...  is it canon?  Is that even a word used properly here?  In comics when we say "is that canon", aren't we really talking about whether the Kents are named Jonathan and Martha or Eben and Sarah?  Or whether Orpheus is still part of the Batman universe?

I own and have read 4 of the 5 listed books.  I've always intended to loop back and read TransMet, but...  Warren Ellis's Warren Ellisness never held much charm for me,** and the thought of reading the whole series past the age of 35 just sounds exhausting.

Frankly, while I do think this is a nifty list of books to recommend a pal who looks just like you, this isn't the list I'd hand a literature professor who wanted to learn about these fancy "graphic novels", as s/he would no doubt call them to my face, trying desperately not to insult my passion for sequential art and storytelling.  I call them comics, thanks.

Immediately I call shenanigans.  I don't know how you put together a list like this without Will Eisner or Jack Kirby represented.  Problematically, I don't know how you frame Jack Kirby for the casual reader where understanding his Kirby-ness is a bit of an artform in and of itself.  Do you start with 1940's Captain America?  Jump to 1963 FF?  Dunk them in the deep end with New Gods?  Point out that superheroes do not make up the entire medium and show them Kirby's other work?

Where is Carl Barks (and Don Rosa)?  Walt Kelley?  Ditko?  Wally Wood?  Kubert?  Pekar?  Crumb?  And has Daniel Clowes moved into that arena?  Can we go international a bit and talk Tardi?  Moebius?  Manara?  Benet?  and we haven't even started talking about Japan.  And, lastly, I know its not fashionable, but how do you leave out Frank Miller and the seismic shocks his work had on superheroes narrative and his artistic style had on the form in the west?

How can you discuss the form of comics without key items like Action Comics #1?  Detective #29?  Amazing Fantasy #15?  I don't know.

I do agree that Sandman and Preacher used the monthly periodical stretched out over many years to tell novelistic and complete stories, and if you've the stomach for Preacher (and its a hard-R, if not NC-17 rating), then its worth checking out.  Its an achievement on so many levels, and both series held their quality and built and built on narrative strength right to the last panel.  Sandman I hold in such high regard I've got all the volumes in those ridiculous Absolute Editions because I quite literally want someone to be reading my copies in 40 years.

But so, too, do under-the-radar works like Promethea manage to pull together a universe, and I value them as highly in their own way.  But I cannot imagine pulling someone aside and saying "You should really start reading comics with Promethea.  You will really appreciate what they did there" anymore than I'd bother taking a child who loves nothing more than Ragu pizza sauce to a $75 a plate restaurant.  Understanding and reading comics isn't necessarily as easy as being able to follow the story and panels.

At some point, seeing the whole field from a 6000 foot view, I don't know how you pick.  Nor do I know how you explain, say, the genius of Carl Barks to someone who is picking up a comic and wading through their entire lifetime's conditioning to how they're supposed to approach Disney products and these characters as icons of the ultimate in pointless entertainment versus what Barks achieved and when he did it?  How do you show them Bark's mastery of figure, character, action and story in what is essentially a "funny animal" comic strip?

How do you explain All Star Superman to someone who comes at it actively wanting to dismiss comics, superheroes and the super hero they've been told by their 18-year-old nephew is "irrelevant"?

These are things that are very hard for even the weekly comic shop customer to overcome.  It takes a leap to not just focus on the hot hit of the week (especially when the internet is screaming at you to buy all 4 tie-ins to this month's event released just this week) and start looking elsewhere on the shelves, digging up history, appreciating the work for something with potential beyond the immediate gratification and as visceral entertainments of sex and violence.  In fact, I'd say that there's almost a detrimental effect from the weekly shopper who is only picking up Batman and Wolverine titles and believes that through some form of osmosis that they know pretty much everything there could be to know about comics (and the answer is:  Batman is a bad-ass).  This same principle applies to folks who used to read comics in middle school, abandoned the medium, but have fond memories of GI Joe and Crystar comics.

You're always going to like what you like and dislike what you dislike, and comics has been mostly free of tweedy critics if you ignore The Comics Journal (and I argue that most comics fans did, until very recently, in fact either ignore or roll their eyes at TCJ for its relentless Eeyore-ism).  I would like to see at least alternative coursework with an academic study of comics history, comics form and function in public schools.  Hell, we've got whole departments of TV and Film, so I don't see why not.  And I think out of this sort of study, and these sorts of conversations the "essentials" of genre, of the study of universes by publishers, and all the other complicating factors in beginning a conversation about comics will begin to create an informed way to even hold that discussion.

But I don't know that we're there yet.  It has to be more than a greatest hits list for comic nerds, and compiling the list has to include things that you may not be entirely comfortable loving, but you can respect (we've all got those items we see in film and TV).  And it has to be demonstrable in its place in the pantheon of the medium.    


*That's not to say Maus doesn't earn its acclaim.  It does.  Its a phenomenal, harrowing read, but its also like believing there was something independent about, oh, The English Patient.
**even as much as I more or less liked Planetary, I became weary of even more characters who stood around being cooler than characters who weren't on panel to comment back


Michael Corley said...

I think it's always worth discussing the medium of comics. Hell, I go out of my WAY to do it. But it's so important for people to remember it's just that, a MEDIUM, not the genre itself. Ask anyone who accidentally picked up some Hentai anime after seeing a cute for kids anime. Same medium, very different shows.

You put it all much more eloquently in your article, but this is a subject that has always irked me more than a bit.

Gerry said...

Michael said what I was going to say. I think it's often pointless to make any sort of serious list, but if it's going to be done it has to be specific, just as any discussion about "comics" should also be pretty specific.

horus kemwer said...

Any list will include Krazy Kat and Little Nemo.

It's true comics are relentlessly self-referential in a manner which inherently frustrates this sort of task, but as you yourself have noted other self-referential media have found ways to succeed even for those who don't get the references (I'm thinking of your Miller's Crossing post).

On the topic of film and the canon there, if you haven't seen Buster Keaton's The General, run (do not pass GO, etc.) to your local video store (if such exist) and rent immediately.

The League said...

As you say, I agree that I am not sure that the self-reference as a quality is necessarily something to take something off the list, but it is something that, depending on the genre within the medium, would have to be understood by the person attempting to make the list. In my opinion, All Star Superman achieves that ability to call back to literally decades of Superman work while working as a new and stand-alone book. (Does it make the cut as "canon"? Probably not.)

I don't see how you can look at comics without Krazy Kat or McCay's stuff, either. Or why that inventiveness and imagination seems so hard for comics to maintain (I also recently saw a "Yellow Kid" page at the SF museum of cartoons, and it was sort of incredible).

I'm definitely interested in the question of comics canon, but its going to have to be something addressed without all the noise to signal that comes from the comics industry and the right application of literature, film, visual art, design, history, sociology and other fields applied. Part of what makes the medium fascinating to watch.

Matt A. said...

@horus kemwer: yes, The General. Fortunately, it's now Public Domain and can be downloaded. "Don't blame me if you lose the war!" Classic.

As for the canon question, to me it comes down to first figuring out what we mean by "comics canon." Individual titles or a run or a whole series? What about the newspaper strips, like Calvin and Hobbes? Can it even be paired down to a single panel, like the rearing horse page in Dark Knight Returns?

The League said...

I actually do have an opinion on this!

I'd prefer long running comics and newspaper strips can be broken down by era and/or creative teams. You can look at Prince Valiant over its 80 year duration, or you can look at it as the years certain creative teams collaborated or told a specific story.

I don't think you can deal with a single panel as canon, but you can deal with Dark Knight Returns outside of the rest of Batman. You can certainly write a thesis on the single panel, but I don't know that it stands on its own as readable item any more than you can pull just the "Mexican stand-off scene" form The Good, The Bad and The Ugly as the only part of the movie.

I have not seen The General, and its been a long time since I watched the Buster Keaton I have seen. I did add it to my queue a while back, and I assume its still there.