Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Storming the Canon

Deadlines. Lots and lots of deadlines. Your loyalty is appreciated and feared.

Rod McKie is a British cartoonist, critic, and Internet buddy of mine, and one of the early supporters of Mom's Cancer who encouraged me to seek publication. He's got a blog I like in which he wrote a recent post about graphic novels that opened with, "Okay, I think I can just about stop doing the nerdy 'graphic novels' air-brackets." Rod argues (if I understand him right) that graphic novels have proven their worth as literature and it's time to quit explaining or apologizing for them. Writes Rod:

Often, a novel is full of impossible, trite and inapt descriptions that seek to convey, for instance, a sense of place. They work in absence of a visual image, employing metaphor and simile and symbolism, and almost always speak of comparison, which is of course one of the constraining limits of language itself. A graphic novel, on the other hand, still uses the same language, but the image is often there, on the page, where 1,000 or more words of descriptive text would be. The written text then, the words on the page, can be more sparse or even non-existent. It seems that when this is the case, the literary critic cannot understand how to 'read' the work, and so, one assumes, how to judge its literary value.

Rod hits on a point I've made before, which is that a good graphic novelist needs to have all the skills of a good writer plus the ability to draw. In any case, Rod then goes on to look at the graphic novels Persepolis, From Hell, Road to Perdition, Blankets, and Houdini the Handcuff King with an eye toward how they might fit into the literary canon. I commented:

That's a nice, insightful essay, thanks for writing it.

I think I'm coming around to the view that the graphic novel's yearning for literary respectability is hardly worth the fight. There's something faintly desperate and pathetic about it, banging on the clubhouse door begging to be let in, and it's an argument that can only really be won by creators doing one excellent job after another for a long time--building, as you suggest, a canon. In this, I think we're sometimes our own worst enemies. I've met comics fans who argue with a straight face that Watchmen is the best work of literature they've ever read. The only possible answer for that is that they need to read a lot more. Too many readers' standards are too low.

In point of fact, I think it's inarguable that graphic novels haven't yet produced anything on par with the best of Dickens/Twain/Joyce/Hemingway/Orwell/Literary Giant of Your Choice. They just haven't. I'd like to think that graphic novels have that potential, but I sometimes wonder if there's something inherently limiting in the medium. In any case, what I'm getting at is that may be the wrong comparison to make. I suggest we worry less about bashing in the door of the other guys' clubhouse than building our own. If, in time, ours becomes interesting and impressive enough, they'll come to us.

It's late at night, that's off the top of my head, and I may change my mind tomorrow....

Well, it's morning and I still feel that way. But it's a topic on which I'm open to argument and willing to be swayed. I look at it like this: let's take a graphic novel that everybody agrees is great: say, Maus by Art Spiegelman. Certainly one of the Top Five graphic novels on almost anyone's list, a Pulitzer Prize winner that crossed over to the mainstream and is taught in college classrooms. (If you don't like Maus, substitute your own favorite.) Great. But is Maus one of the best five books in the library? Not even close. Top 50? Not on most readers' lists. Top 500? Maybe.

Could some hypothetical graphic novel become one of the best five books ever written? As I replied to Rod, I'd like to think so but I'm not certain the medium has it in it. The only way creators and readers will find out is by aiming higher. Even if they fall short, there's a lot of uncharted territory to explore and the results will be interesting.

1 comment:

Rod McKie said...

Hi Brian,

nice post, as usual.

I was reading 'Gothic' (Routledge)by Fred Botting the other night - as you do - and what struck me was the similarity of the arguments against Romance and Gothic fiction and the debate about the corrupting influence of comic books in the 50s and today, and more recently the debate surrounding Graphic Novels.

It looks to me as if history is repeating itself and we are seeing both the birth of a new literary movement, and a resurection of the usual arguments against it. Which is fine because unless we metaphorically rip the books apart we will never establish a criteria for excellence.

I think you are right about quality. Charles Dickins devoted two pages of writing to deciding what to call 'Hard Times' and often some of today's Graphic Novelists appear to have given less thought than that to their entire project.

Until the people who produce Graphic Novels have read more books than they have written, and have a dictionary of Symbolism next to their ink pots, this new literary medium will produce nothing more than a momentary talking point on what might have been.

Having said all that, like you I think the signs are good as there are some gifted people working on new projects that I am confident will blow us all away tomorrow, or next week, or next year(the new Brian Fies for instance).