17 February 2007

Graphic Narrative

I feel bad that, as one of the founders of this blog, I've posted so little in recent months. One reason, of course, is the time involvements of doing something related to the means of expression discussed in this blog -- namely, I run a small press, and do so more or less in my so-called "spare time."

Teaching 4 classes this semester, Starcherone Books is enough of an additional chore to keep me pretty busy, and behind in my obligations. But this semester particularly has been one in which I've attempted to bring my teaching in line with my other interests. I teach in a college, Medaille College of Buffalo, which has no graduate Creative Writing program; we barely have an undergraduate English major. The main constituency for my pedagogy is undergraduate students who are pre-professional in inclination, and the professions are much more likely to be elementary school teaching, police work, or veterinary technicians than more literary-minded professions such as the law or those requiring grad school educations. The anti-reading figures cited by Lance from the NEA report are realities for my students -- they do not read, not even bestsellers, and Literature to them is primarily something that other people do, somewhere else, with more than a little presumed class advantage.

Nevertheless, I wished this semester to engage them and, sad to say, had had my fill (at least temporarily) of trying to force them through "difficult" work. Doing so is not without its converts, of course -- I've had students in recent years who were very moved and even permanently changed by being introduced to works by Lance Olsen and Ralph Berry when they each visited Medaille, and by texts by Ben Marcus, Williams Burroughs, and Nina Shope, among others. But I was tired of writing off the vast majority of Medaille students. Was there nothing that could engage their creativity? Was I writing off 80-90% of the college's student body, the imaginations of 19-20 year olds which should have some potential for unscrewing the doors from the jambs, and then the jambs themselves? Wouldn't they also derive some life benefit from kicking out the jambs, muthafucka, just once in their narrativally pre-prescribed lives?

I went into the trenches -- I am now teaching 3 sections of General Education 230 - Creative Expression, a sophomore-level creativity class in a Gen Ed curriculum that students by and large hate at Medaille. I decided to try, instead of a more standard Intro to the Arts class, a more populist version of avant-garde. I called the class Punk Rock & Comics. We began with the Sex Pistols movie, The Filth & the Fury, and from there moved into the McSweeney's anthology of avant-comics. Not so populist, really (only 2 of 50 students in 3 sectionshad ever heard of the Sex Pistols!), but with more potential for populist consumption -- and from there inroads into theory and the avant-garde, via Greil Marcus's Lipstick Traces & its connections to Dada & the Situationists. I also (as noted in a comment below) showed Lars von Trier/Jurgen Leth's The Five Obstructions, which they are currently wrestling with. Next up is Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel/memoir, Persepolis. I'm trying to keep them drawing, doing cut-ups, etc., the whole time.

This could go in various directions, but my focus for this post is this: What do you folks think about the revolution going on in comics today, toward, it seems to me, a lot of the issues our fiction is interested in? That is, like punk and like us, the alt-comics scene is very much fueled by an anti-corporate aesthetic; it's likely to draw attention to its own act of creating, to be self-referential and question easy assumptions of representation; it's also drawn ("drawn") to depictions of the margins of culture, those left out of the airbrushed versions of American (and world) existence which are the subjects of mainstream books & movies; as well, it is a medium that is, in essence, a post-medium-- it refers to the tradition (see, for instance Art Spiegelman's peon to 100 year-old daily comics, in In the Shadow of No Towers) but sees such as a lost time that cannot be repeated given what we know now, our current complexities; finally (rhetorically, anyway), it engages the "creative non-fiction" debate in a striking and fresh way: artificial and discredited as a serious discourse by its very nature, it nevertheless engages the notion of factual experience, and indeed, history, writ large and small. I think, in this last formulation, of such texts as Spiegelman's Maus, Satrapi's Persepolis, Phoebe Gloeckner's Diary of a Teenage Girl, or in the McSweeney's book, Joe Matt, Lynda Barry, Jeffrey Brown, etc. As well (the hits just keep happening...), is this in any way an extension/reenactment of fiction writers' own desires to create visuals -- Vonnegut, Sebald, Marcus, Federman, Shelley Jackson, etc.?

What say ye?

(Above: Gloeckner's cover for J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition.)


Trevor Dodge said...

I'm glad you raised this topic for discussion, Ted, because I'm teaching a course on comics myself right now and we're having similar conversations about their functions and aesthetics.

Like you, I'm also using the McSweeney's anthology edited by Chris Ware. In his introduction, Ware argues that Western comics and the people who make them constantly have to combat two generally-held assumptions: 1) comics are supposed to make us laugh, and 2) the subject matter stereotypically involves superheroes. Both of these assumptions, he says, lead the general public to believe that comics are little more than greasy kids' stuff.

The problem is that for people who regularly read comics in wide variety, these assumptions rarely ring true. And this is a connection we can easily make, I think, to more traditional sentence-and-paragraph works. As all of us here well know, experimental fiction combats its own set of stereotypes and assumptions.

Warren Ellis wrote a magnificent piece a few years ago titled "The Old Bastard's Manifesto," in which he called upon readers and creators of comics to think beyond the trappings of cartoon animals and Cape-And-Boots-Man. He makes a salient point describing the polluting effects superheroes have on the potential readership for comics:

The notion that these things dominate an entire genre is absurd. It's like every bookstore in the planet having ninety percent of its shelves filled by nurse novels. Imagine that. You want a new novel, but you have to wade through three hundred new books about romances in the wards before you can get at any other genre. A medium where the relationship of fiction about nurses outweighs mainstream literary fiction by a ratio of one hundred to one. Superhero comics are like bloody creeping fungus, and they smother everything else.

Ellis likening superhero comics to romance novels should remind us of a recurrent meme here at this humble blog: truly interesting and innovative work frequently has to atone for the work that is neither interesting nor innovative. Thus, the mainstream comic book publishers aren't fundamentally different from their counterparts in the sentence-and-paragraph world. So in those regards, Ted, I definitely agree with you.

But in other ways, I think it's pretty clear that the old bellyaching about how comics are dismissed out-of-hand by publishers, critics and academics is very much on the wane (at least that's my sense of things here in the United States, anyway). Universities, art schools and even community colleges in rural Oregon are routinely running courses on comics; Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman command sizeable advances for their work; comic art is shown widely in this country's most prestigious galleries (The Whitney, for starters); Harvey Pekar continues to enjoy critical success; Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis was chosen last year for Seattle Reads; Frank Miller's grittiest nightmares are finding their way into your local multiplex theaters, and the NY Times recently published an interview with Robert and Aline Crumb in (of all places) the Fashion & Style section that reads as if lifted straight out of Better Homes and Garden.

Yes, it's still largely true that the mainstream culture here wants to handle comics with kid gloves, but even that implies the work is at the very least getting fingered in bookstores (if not outrightly stolen; just ask your local librarian how hard it is to keep tabs on their trade paperbacks of Sandman) and a lot of times coming home in those crunchy, chainstore cellophane bags.

All of above fails to mention, of course, the potent influence Japanese manga is having. Every time I'm in the "Graphic Novels" sections of our neighborhood Borders or Barnes & Noble stores here in Portland, I'm delighted to report that I'm frequently jousting with the largest (and easily the most diverse) reading group in the store; I routinely have to wait or circle the aisle because a gaggle of teenage girls has roosted between Angel Sanctuary and Bleach.

In other words: experimental fiction could only be so lucky to be as misunderstood or marginalized as comics. :)

Ted Pelton said...

I'm not really interested in the debate about comics not being popular enough -- as you say, we should all be so unpopular. And superheroes -- I'm glad you bring this up -- are of NO interest to me. That's the one genre that's not even improved by revelations of gay subtexts.

I am interested, though, if people see any interface between innovative fiction and alt-comics. And I'm also interested in being critical of the male-orientation of the genre. But at its best, I think there is work -- and Spiegelman would be my poster child -- of smart, self-aware storytelling, as informed and aware as much of the best recent fiction.

btw/ Let's hear it for those old Presidents, the one who advised staying out of foreign conflicts, and the one who ended slavery & was murdered by a Southern bigot. They've now teamed up to give me a day off!

Trevor Dodge said...

Is there an interface between the two? Absolutely. You mentioned Lynda Barry in your first message, Ted, whose work consistently blurs the lines between fiction, comics, memoir, illustration, painting and design. I'm particularly smitten with her novel CRUDDY, which at first glance comes across as a fairly typical sentence-and-paragraph novel, with occasional sprinklings of Barry's paintings as chapter markers.

Because the mass market edition of the novel is typeset, an easy and natural assumption would be that Barry wrote this novel with pen and paper or from behind a keyboard, but that is not the way she created it. Every sentence in the first draft of CRUDDY was *painted* on legal paper with a brush and Tuscan watercolor. (The structure of the novel involves a diary and accompanying 1st person narrative.) Taking this process into consideration makes a strong case that Barry's concept for CRUDDY is as much visual as it is textual.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

One of the good things about modern times is that we have so many different ways of telling stories. We still have oral storytelling, as well as the written word (poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction), plays, movies, comics and graphic novels, and, with online methods, many ways of putting out variations on all of those. Having played with the same idea in written and oral form (and to some extent in very short movies and poetry), I've realized that stories must be approached differently in different media. Further, some stories are just best told in some forms; if you change the form, the story becomes something different and if you try to keep the original story in the new form, you get a mess (which explains why many bad movies have been made from good novels).
Graphic novels are one very obvious example of this. I don't think the story Satrapi tells in Persepolis would be half as powerful as a written memoir. The same can be said of Alison Bechdel's (of Dykes to Watch Out For fame) stunning Fun Home.

Anonymous said...

The chances of this ever being seen are slim, but I had a fanciful thought today that I'd like to share.

Ted, in your response to Cam Tatham in November 2006, you called Toni Morrison's writing maximalist, and it occurred to me today that graphic novels are similarly maximalist in the sense that every moment belongs to the overall cohesiveness of the story. There is, in other words, a discernable lack of both filler and unrealized potential - all moments are exploited.

As one hand now disclaims my lack of abundant knowledge of innovative fiction, my other hand will push forth the possiblity that it simply don't get much more "anti-corporate aesthetic" than this. If what you're interested in (if you guys have been at all clear over the months I've been reading this blog) is a combination of envelope-pushing and precision-level directness, then i think you've met a true equal in graphic form.

So here's the real question... I get the impression you know a lot of this, so why aren't you all doing it? Or are you? Is ANY form broken away from standard paragraph and page considered graphic? What about, for example, Lance's 10:01, which is standardly formatted but comes complete with its own website? - graphic or no? If no, what defines, for you, the alt-comic scene?

Lance Olsen said...

That's an interesting question, B. I do think of 10:01 as a kind of three-dimensional graphic novel, at least to the extent that it engages in a conversation between text and image. And I'd very much like to try my hand at a print graphic novel someday, but, alas, I think the real reason I haven't is because I lack the talent. My artist wife, Andi, and I have collaborated on text-image collages, which I very much enjoy doing. But I haven't yet found a serious visuals collaborator for an extended graphic project.