Saturday, July 16, 2005

Comics and Abigail Don't Always Mix

'A friend declared, "I've read comic books for years and I just decided: I don't like them."'
Jessa Crispin, blogging in Bookslut

For a voracious reader, I have some stunning holes in my resume. I didn't read Jane Eyre until I was 22 (in certain countries, I believe that's considered sufficient evidence of being male). My mother gave me The Lord of the Rings as a kid, but she never pointed me towards other fantasy titles, so I skipped the Terry Goodking/Terry Brooks/Robert Jordan phase of a fantasy lover's life-cycle entirely. I still haven't read To Kill a Mockingbird or Little Women. Growing up in a non-English speaking country and reading almost exclusively in English makes for some odd reading habits, especially when you're left to guide yourself.

Which is one of the reasons I never read comics as a kid. Another, and probably more likely reason is that I'm a girl, and no one around me was reading them.

But it's impossible to read bloggers like Neil Gaiman and Jessa Crispin for very long without hearing how wonderful comics are. You learn to be appalled with newspaper articles (usually titled "Bang! Zap! Comics are Growing up!") that condescend to an entire genre, disgusted with critics who won't even give comics a chance, and enraged at state prosecutors who jail comics shop owners for selling adult comics to adults because "Comic books, traditionally what we think of, are for kids." It's a familiar situation to a science fiction fan, and it's hard not to sympathize.

So, for the last three years I've been slowly trying to become comics-literate. If you hang around the internet for longer than 30 seconds, you'll accumulate a list of the top recommended titles, and, very seriously and studiously, I started crossing them off. For the last few months, I've been aided in this endeavor by my friend Hagay, who's been very generous and trusting with his collection.

Unfortunately, like Crispin's friend, most of the time I just don't like comics. Sure, there have been graphic novels that I've closed with tears in my eyes and deep gratitude for the impulse that made me buy them, but they've been the minority. In most cases, I'll turn the last page and say 'Well, the art was nice, but...', or 'Good story, what a shame about the art', or 'Why did I spend 150 shekels on that?'

What I'm about to write might strike some readers as being just as condescending as those articles I mentioned earlier, but honestly, that isn't my intention. I've been trying very hard to enjoy comics, and most of the time I just can't. These are some of the reasons I've come up with.

I think a serious problem with comics is that so much has to go right. With books, you need a good author and a good editor - there's limited room for things to go wrong. With comics, there's a tremendous number of people with serious input into the work - writer, artist, inker, colorist - and any weak link can damn the whole enterprise.

Neil Gaiman's Sandman is a good example. This is one of the comics that I loved, but it took me a long time to get there because, quite frankly, the art during most of the series is dreadful. It becomes close to bearable around volume 5, A Game of You, crosses over into decent with volume 7, Brief Lives, and doesn't even approach good until volume 9, The Kindly Ones. In other words, for 80% of the series, Gaiman's stunning prose, fascinating characters and terrific story are buried beneath drawings that belong on some mother's refrigerator, not a recognized classic of the genre.

At the other end of the scale, take Craig Thompson's Blankets. The art is absolutely gorgeous. Sinuous forms melt into each other, landscapes are conveyed with a few lines, the characters' faces are marvelously expressive. But the story? Eh. Thompson is as earnest as all get out, but there's really not much more to Blankets than a rather unexciting boy-meets-girl tale. It's very honest and accurate - in fact, many reviews have noted how much Thompson's story resonated with their own experiences, which seems to me to be a point against him. If everyone has a young love story like Thompson's, what makes his so special that he had to write a book about it? There's nothing in Thompson's writing that elevates the story beyond the mundane, and so all his stunning art is wasted.

Which brings me to another problem that may keep many comics from greatness. In interviews, Thompson describes the all-consuming experience of writing Blankets. Apparently, the storyboarding alone took a year. From beginning to end, the project took Thompson three and a half years - to tell what is essentially a short story. A prose writer would have gotten this autobiographical tale of first love out of his system in his first creative writing class, and moved on to better and more interesting subjects, but for Thompson, telling that same story took up a significant chunk of his career.

(A corollary to this issue might be the limited topics that comics seem to cover. You have your superhero comics, and then you have everything else, which tends to mean navel-gazing, meandering, plotless, autobiographical or semi-autobiographical stories. There doesn't seem to be a lot of middle ground between the two, neither of which appeal to me when it comes to books.)

Interestingly enough, I love Sandman and have lukewarm feelings towards Blankets, which suggests another problem in the Abigail-comics interface. I don't really know how to read comics. I concentrate on the words and not on the pictures. I don't tend to notice details, and when I remind myself to keep an eye out for them, my appreciation of the narrative flow is interrupted.

Now, reading is an acquired skill, and one that requires much more than just a first grade education. I read better books today than I did when I was 18 or 12, but those books taught me how to be a better reader. It isn't clear to me what the corresponding comics are, and whether they would appeal to me in terms of their subject matter and quality of writing.

In the blog post from which I lifted the quote that opens this entry, Jessa Crispin distinguishes between comics that are 'good for a comic book' and those that are 'good for a book'. She goes on to conclude that you could play the same game with any genre - "Robert Heinlein: good for science fiction. Stanislaw Lem: good for a book." Which suggests an obvious question - do I enjoy science fiction because, having read it since I was a child, I'm accustomed to its idiosyncrasies? If I were trying to read science fiction for the very first time at the age of 24, would I enjoy it?

(As a interesting counterpart to this question, go read Matthew Cheney's fascinating post about teaching Neil Gaiman's American Gods to eleventh graders, many of whom had never read a work of modern fantasy - or a 500 page book - before.)


JP said...

You don't like Sam Kieth's wonderful work on Preludes & Nocturnes????

*wanders away sobbing puzzledly

Harold Smithson said...

"A corollary to this issue might be the limited topics that comics seem to cover."

That's not entirely false, but then you might say the same of fantasy if you were unfamiliar with the genre. Plenty of comics hang out in various camps but there are those that differentiate themselves from the rest. The Maxx is an interesting exploration of fantasy and sexuality (you can view the animated adaption online-legally-for free). Grant Morrison's We3 is a pretty good with experimental writing and solid artwork. Shade the Changing Man, though you'd be very hard-pressed to actually find it, was so far ahead of the curve that it was talking about transgenderism during the 90s. Then you have Astro City (short stories in a superhero universe that is far more good-natured and charming than either the Marvel or DC universes. It's also relatively diverse), Mike Mignola's Hellboy (a horror series with exceptional artwork that draws on a variety of real stories for inspiration), and a good portion of Warren Ellis' work. There are also plenty of European comic writers that I haven't mentioned. I think Moebius is probably the most well-regarded and influential.

"Interestingly enough, I love Sandman and have lukewarm feelings towards Blankets, which suggests another problem in the Abigail-comics interface. I don't really know how to read comics. I concentrate on the words and not on the pictures. I don't tend to notice details, and when I remind myself to keep an eye out for them, my appreciation of the narrative flow is interrupted."

Try Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics.

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