Thursday, December 08, 2005

I recently finished reading The Comics Journal Special Edition Vol. 4, which features interviews with 4 generations of cartoonists: Al Hirschfeld, Jules Feiffer, art spiegelman, and Chris Ware. It's the book that contained the 2 short comics stories that almost made me cry. Anyway, I wanted to share some choice excerpts from the interviews. I've been reading up on my comics literature in preparation for a possible something that may be fun but may also in equal measure be absolute torture.

First, an inspiring bit from Feiffer -

" ... what these books do for me, as I write them, is become, in their way, acts of hope and acts of friendship toward readers who read them. So that kids who feel they have no allies, and kids who feel that they're not represented, and kids who, whether within family or in school or in their own group of friends and so-called friends, yet feel like outsiders, can do what I did: pick up a comic strip, or pick up a book, and say, 'Oh my God, this is me. I recognize myself in this.' And so it's my communication and challenge and loving salute to another generation. And this is where my sense of hope lies. The forms that I loved as a kid: movies, comic books, comic strips, occasional books that I read, in one way or another, socialized me, gave me hope, and made me dream of the impossible as plausible, and if I can do that for some kids, that's quite enough, thank you."

which is how I feel.

And then this exchange between Feiffer and Ware (Gary Groth is the moderator) -

Feiffer: ... the very fact that graphic novels - that awful term...
Groth: That we're stuck with.
Ware: I'm glad you don't like it either.
Feiffer: [Laughter]
Ware: I don't actually know anybody that likes that word.
Feiffer: Well, Eisner saddled us with "sequential art."
Ware: The story that Will Eisner tells about why he came up with that word is heartbreaking; I understand why he did it, and I'm sympathetic... but, to me, it seems almost rude to our forebears - at least MY forebears - to try to create a new word for something that somehow sets apart what I'm doing from what they were doing, when it's essentially exactly the same thing. Somehow, it implies that I'm placing myself above them, which I'm not at all.

which got me thinking. The ongoing dialogue about a possible term for comics that is more... appropriate, for lack of a better word (semi-literally, in this case), is something I brush up against every now and then, online and with people I meet/know. The etymology of the word "comics" and "comic book" comes from its beginnings as collections of comic strips in the early 1900s, before original content was made for the books. Eisner coined the term "graphic novel" for his seminal A Contract With God & Other Stories, which came out in the late '70s. Though he wasn't the first person to use it; I believe it was Eddie Campbell (in How to Be an Artist) who pointed out that someone else had used the term (coined independently) before him. Eisner later coined "sequential art" (in his instructional books, if I remember right) as a kind of scientific/technical name, which Scott McCloud espouses. The argument goes that comics is no longer entirely accurate, because much of comics publishing these days, and for a long time now, has not been of the humor/comedy variety. And graphic novel is too open to interpretation. As someone quipped, Chuck Palahniuk writes some pretty graphic novels. And sequential art is supposedly unwieldy and sounds pretentious (it proclaims itself to be art, after all). There are other attempts: Paul Pope put "drawn novel" on one of his books (was it The Ballad of Dr. Richardson?) and Craig Thompson had "illustrated novel" on the cover of Blankets. Drawn novel sounds alright, but is vulnerable to the inevitable "what about novels that aren't drawn but painted" angle. Whereas illustrated novel could just as easily refer to a novel with illustrations, like Harry Potter, obviously not comics. Of these, the term that seems to have won out is graphic novel. This probably got cemented in most people's minds around the late '80s when certain books (Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, Maus) came out that changed how some people saw comics. Publishers preferred the term because it sounded more "grown up" and sophisticated, and were avoiding the link to superhero and children's comics that was then still firmly entrenched in the populace's mind. It's probably going to stick, even if some cartoonists and purists hate it (Feiffer and Ware are far from the only ones). That's perhaps because they're not appreciating it as what it really is, which is a marketing term. Graphic novel is supposed to imply adult (not porn, but mature) and long; it differentiates the thicker books (look, Ma, I have a spine!) from those thin pamphlets of our youth (or current day, as the case may be). Bookstores and libraries have graphic novel sections, not comics sections. Graphic novel is a formal subcategory of book publishing now, even if it still has the same problems mentioned earlier as well as the fact that it's used as an umbrella for all comics that are thick and have spines. So graphic novel has its own subcategories, even when they seem to make no sense: non-fiction comics like Joe Sacco's books are under graphic novels, as are anthologies. One of the first graphic novels, the aforementioned A Contract With God, isn't even a novel itself but an anthology of 4 short stories.

Personally, I don't really care about any of it. I just call 'em comics. I don't mind if other people use the terms they prefer, though it does kind of grate my teeth a little when people try to imply their terminology is better (perhaps the only negative thing I could say about Anna on The O.C.).

But reading that exchange above introduced to me for the first time that idea that trying to come up with a new term for comics may be insulting to our forebears, that maybe it is implying that it's different when it isn't.

If so, it's a good thing I've always called them comics, then.

It came up again recently when we were trying to come up with a name for the Gaiman/Fully Booked contest. The Comics and Prose Awards didn't sound very exciting, so I came up with Graphic/Fiction, which is a kind of inbetweener, I guess. For the purposes of the contest it's what they ended up going with.

The contest has been formally announced, but I haven't talked about it yet because the contest guidelines that were uploaded to the website were not the final draft so I didn't see the point of pointing people to it when it was going to get updated and you'd need to look at it again. Hopefully everything will be sorted out soon and I'll mention it here soon as I can.

You know, I think I lost the point I was trying to make, or even if there was one. It feels good to have gotten this down, though. Maybe I'll read it again in the morning and it'll come to me.

I'll end with something from Tony Millionaire, which I found online:

"You've got to give kids really beautiful children's books in order to turn them into revolutionaries. Because if they see these beautiful things when they're young, when they grow up, they'll see the real world and say, 'Why is the world so ugly?! I remember when the world was beautiful.' And then they'll fight, and they'll have a revolution. They'll fight against all of our corruption in the world, they'll fight to try to make the world more beautiful. That's the job of a good children's book illustrator."

He is a brilliant man. Everyone should be reading Sock Monkey.

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