Saturday, November 03, 2007

Usurp the Useless Eulogists

I can see a great danger ahead in the UK that will stunt the growth of 'graphic novels' here are surely as the growth and development of comic books and comic strips was stifled in the 1930s by D.C. Thomson.

I have mentioned in the past that 'cartoonists' here, in the UK, are not afforded the opportunities that were around when I was a beginning cartoonist. We couldn't make millions from our art, even if it was read by 1,000,000 readers a week, but we did have the opportunity to develop as cartoonists. We could produce full-page, full-colour work for the smut mags, we could submit comic ideas to IPC and DC Thomson (work for hire, of course - with them keeping all the character rights), and we had numerous publishers of gag cartoons to bring in the bread-and-butter-money. We have never really had a comic strip industry, which is why Peanuts could never have evolved here and neither could The Far Side or Calvin and Hobbes.

Once that period, which in retrospect was a bit of a Golden-Age, I suppose, was over, the comic artists and writers who had created 2000 AD, Alan Moore, Alan Grant, Brian Bolland, Cam Kennedy, Grant Morrison, et al, all drifted over to the US, either in body, spirit, or both. The comic artists and writers who worked on IPC's Juvenile titles (like me), however, who had no such eager market waiting for them, did not. Not then anyway.

Today then, it looks like a new 'Golden Age' is dawning, with the ever increasing popularity of the 'Graphic Novel'. Stellar works like Maus, Persepolis, Jimmy Corrigan, Palestine, Ghost World, Blankets, Black Hole, Shortcomings, have all helped usher in this new development in the history of the novel, along with major Japanese Manga, like the voluminous Monster and Death Note. So why am I worried?

Well, my major worry began with the bible; 'In the beginning was the word...'. That belief in the primacy of the word is still to be found today, for all manner of cultural and religious reasons - and canonical reasons of power and control, in critical circles in Britain today. In yesterday's Independent, Thomas Sutcliffe helped harden my resolve that the right to review work by other cartoonists should not fall to the 'usual suspects', the 'graphically illiterate' literati friends and former classmates of the novelists they review, but to cartoonists, who can decode the medium - after all, intellectuals who publish books and do understand comic books, like for instance Professor Umberto Eco, are pretty thin on the ground here, for all the reasons mentioned above. I really believe that unless the people who produce these 'graphic novels' insist on being given the opportunity to review the work, in a way that explains its accessibility to the public, then production of graphic novels in this country will just never take off in the way it has in the rest of the world. In his article, Thomas Sutcliffe mentioned the 'defiant pride' the reviewers' exhibited when it came to discussing anything as lowly as a 'graphic novel'.

You don't usually expect to encounter confessions of illiteracy when you're chairing a Radio 4 arts review programme, but it has happened two weeks in succession to me, with guests on Saturday Review admitting – without obvious shame – that their reading skills aren't very good. In fact, there was an edge of defiant pride in the way they announced their incapacity – the explanation being that it wasn't printed prose they were admitting to having problems with, but comics, or graphic novels.

What astonished me, I have to admit, is that this patronising attitude toward the medium actually extended to the work of the establishment's favourite creator of comic strips, the ennobled Posey Simmonds:

It happened first when we were discussing Posy Simmonds' latest book Tamara Drewe, an knowingly updated version of Far From the Madding Crowd. "I don't know how to read it," one of the guests said fretfully, explaining how they found themselves perpetually tugged between the pictures and the text.

Okay, speaking as a cartoonist I am astonished. Speaking as someone with degrees in English Lit', I am amazed that these people wish to be associated with literature at all. Speaking as someone who has taught English, using, amongst other tools, graphic novels, I fear that these people haven't been educated to GCSE standard. Or, or is something else going on, are they pretending to be 'illiterate' here in order to demean the subject?

And oddly enough, exactly the same lament surfaced the following week, when Zadie Smith's anthology The Book of Other People came up for review. Two of the contributors to this collection of character studies, Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware (whose work should be familiar to readers of The Independent on Sunday), are cartoonists, and their pieces apparently induced a similar kind of anxiety in at least one of the guests. "I never know where to look first," was the way it was phrased.

This is quite extraordinary, two of the reviewers can't read the work of multi-award winning author/illustrator/cartoonist Chris Ware, the man labelled 'Smartest Cartoonist on Earth ' in an article by Andrew D./ Arnold for Time Magazine as long ago as the year 2000, and what's more they are proudly announcing it to anyone who is willing to listen. Of course they may well be telling the truth. Perhaps they are 'challenged' when they see words and pictures together - perhaps they can't watch movies or theatre with subtitles - poor little lambs. On the other hand, perhaps they are the sort of old or prematurely old, fogey's who habituate these programmes and decry anything that smacks of the 'vulgar modernity' of pop culture.,9171,53789-4,00.html

Just for them, those people who don't know what order to look at the pictures and the words in, I thought I'd throw in an added bonus; some dolls they can squeeze whilst they are pondering what to begin with, a picture or a word:


Brian Fies said...

Rod, interesting take. I've also had people tell me they don't understand how to read comics--some in my own family. I never feel any sense of defiance or pride from them, though; more like resignation or even mild shame. In other words, unsurprising reactions for someone admitting illiteracy.

It got me to thinking of reading comics as an acquired skill, and perhaps one most easily learned young, like other language abilities. You and I grew up reading comics and the idea of someone not being able to strikes us as weird. But I can understand someone who's gone their whole lives mostly comics-free (and I think that's easy to do, and doesn't mark one as uncultured) being confused by them.

I get some feeling of what that might be like when I look at some of Chris Ware's pages, for example: What the hell's going on here, where do I start, what does it mean? It takes some effort. More prosaically, I vividly remember looking at an X-Men comic in the '90s, years after I'd stopped regularly reading mainstream superhero stuff, and having absolutely no idea what was going on. The dialog had nothing to do with the art, the art was a jumble of undefined shapes that might have been people, and the panel sequence--"where I was supposed to look"--baffled me. I think that was a badly done comic. But I also think every comic might look like that to an inexperienced eye, and I gained considerable sympathy for this particular form of illiteracy.

So I tend to be pretty understanding when I come across people who don't know how to read comics, although like you I don't have much patience for people who brag about it.

Rod McKie said...

Hi Brian, hope all is well. I see your mantle is buckling under even more award pressure - good stuff, it's deserved.

This was related to a thread I was involved in with the UK cartoonists, but they tend to be gag cartoonists, mainly, so they aren't much interested - I'm sorry to say.

You don't see British cartoonists on Arts programmes over here, not the way you do on European TV and you'll notice Youtube carries interviews with Chris Ware and Peter Bagge and the like, from European and US programmes, but not really any UK cartoonists. We also have a lack of podcasts and interviews and anthologies and well, we just really have a cultural block I think.

This anonimity has been fed and feuled by our lack of a comic strip culture, it's not uncommon for British papers never to have run comic strips, ever. Some have one, some have two. We do not have the same 'graphic novel' or comic book culture that the French, the Italians, the Japanese and the US has.

As a consequence our critics are in place and are of a particular mindset,'comics are for kids'. They support the primacy of the written word, and the narrowness of the literary Canon, and I think this article helped illustrate that. It's not so much that these critics 'can't see' it's that they choose not to see.

You might ask why, when the BBC programmes' involved a discussion of graphic novels, these particular reviewers were chosen? Especially when the BBC's researchers, from my experience, give one a very thourough vetting.

My suggestion is that to balance the discussion, the newly formed Professional Cartoonist Agency (or whatever it is actually called), supplies the BBC and other media with contact names of its more lucid and camera friendly (which might be a tall order), members who would be willing to appear as reviewers and critics in order that a more balanced review can be mediated to the listener or viewer.