Question:Is there an attitude of dismissiveness towards literary comics in certain critical circles? Towards comics that tackle literary themes, mimic novelistic structures and storytelling, or indulge in very literary the-art-and-the-artist navel-gazing? I've heard and read people suggest that these comics try too hard for respectability, that they're primarily to be read by people who don't like comics. Some of this might be reading too much into superficial online comments. I'm unsure. Thoughts? - sanveerbindra
Sure, absolutely. But then, each of those circles probably has a somewhat different idea of what ‘literary’ comics are. It used to be simply comics with aspirations beyond exercising the qualities of genre - which replicated, I think, that quintessential latter-half-of-the-20th-century obsession with qualifying the division between High and Low art. And even then, there were disagreements over whether novelistic comics which hewed to generic strictures were correctly literary: always, the texture was a mix of intent, form and circumstance.
Harvey Pekar, for example, took great inspiration from realist fiction, but autobiographical comics both are and aren’t considered literary. Up until most of the way through the ’00s, they were sort of considered (by people who disliked them) as a dominant species of indie comics, and indicative of the inability of indie comics to succeed anywhere beyond their homogenous, self-centered cloister. Then Fun Home happened, and Persepolis happened, and now the knock is that these comics appeal too much in the wrong (i.e. boring) direction.
Similarly, as the ’00s stretched on, and venues like Kramers Ergot and publishers like PictureBox gained momentum, the values of small press comics arguably became less literary or confessional than visual, collapsing distinctions between reproduced comics and gallery art. (There were, obviously, many antecedents, ranging from RAW to Fort Thunder, but this is where the dialogue really seemed to shift.) In that light, to be ‘literary,’ arguably, was to gesture toward traditional narrative structure - but then, Kramers always had a number of very straightforward stories in it; Chris Ware was a contributor, and he’s frankly as prone to start talking about comics as musical composition as anything else in a book.
I suppose what I’m saying is that it’s quite easy to brandish the literary as a signal of what’s wrong in comics, because it casts a very broad beam. I don’t like many of the comics I see coming out of the generalist book publishers, because I don’t think a lot of them are especially interesting or adept as comics, but this is as much the result of the expectations of marketing to a certain demographic as it is a symptom of literary pursuit.
This is a really solid description of a term that gets used as both praise and a pejorative, but often because it’s being used to describe such a wide range of comics it’s difficult to know what a person is referring to.
The final thing that Joe mentions couldn’t be more true. Random House, Norton proper—even the most generic Image or IDW genre comic is stronger than the autobio and “literary” stuff they’ve been putting out. There’s exceptions, like when they swoop in and give a young cartoonist a nice paycheck, but generally speaking, if those guys put it out, it’s always terrible. What’s often surprising is that when you speak to the people who work at these places about these books, they’re either dismissive of the entire field as total crap (because their only experience is a bunch of piece of shit non-starters) or they’re psychotically bewildered as to why they aren’t moving 10,000 units of a Fun Home rip-off drawn by someone who couldn’t get a mini-comic past whoever it is who is supposed to be editing comiXology Submit selections.
What’s also interesting—well, maybe only to me, and maybe not even that—is how unaware the rest of comics often is of these books, except for that one week or so where the New York Times or the LA Review of Books gets marketed into writing about them (which I don’t really blame them for—Random certainly buys a lot more ad space in big magazines than every comics publisher combined). You won’t find these books in comic stores unless they’re given a copy (and they usually are), you won’t find any of our comics journalists writing about them—they don’t exist in this spectrum at all. Even at their most popular (David Small’s Stitches comes to mind), they’re just nonentities except for their placement on that NY Times bestseller list—another area you can only truly game if you’re a really big outlet.
Sometimes I do wonder what and where comics would be like if there was somebody at one of those bigger houses who actually knew the difference between a Bechdel and a…well, whatever those last two Penguin graphic novels were supposed to be. Would that kind of money and press engagement change anything? Most alternative comics publishers and readers feel to me to have a somewhat cynical view of how many potential readers of non-genre powered graphic novels really exist, but how much of me thinking they’re incorrect is my own ignorance? Maybe Pantheon was it, and getting Black Hole into the apes movie as a prop is as far as it goes.
Anyway. I always learn something from reading Joe.
Yeah I mean I’m predisposed against the term “literary comics…” I don’t think it has much of a meaning to me, but it signals an agenda which I don’t really value, that academia or “the literary establishment”(?) should respect these comics by nature of some particular shared values, maybe as opposed to the clarity of the voice and the effect of its message.) I try to keep my eyes and ears open. Good/interesting/compelling work tends to stands out in any arena…