by Kevin Czap
On Sunday evening, the venerable Jame Harvey (HARVEYJAMES™) generated a discussion across Twitter about, essentially, what are comics good for? Is the medium itself capable of producing work as moving or significant as literature, film, painting, sculpture, theater, etc? Us true-believers might be compelled to issue a knee-jerk dismissal to this charge, but I think it’s important we ask ourselves truthfully.
This reminds of a time in college when my classmates in the painting department attempted to boost morale and begin a Painting Appreciation Club after hours. The first meeting, we were encouraged to go around and relate emotional experiences we’ve had with paintings. I had to admit that I’d never felt so strong a connection with any painting I’d seen (although it’s possible I just wasn’t remembering), but that music was the medium that really made me cry. Literally, I cry over amazing music. Often. I couldn’t think of a painting that made me cry, although the leader of the club insisted that she’d been so moved on several occasions. It made me wonder what was keeping me from feeling that much.
Taste is a really tricky rubric to judge by. Striving for perfect taste is a losing game, I feel, you’ll always be outdone by someone more refined. Therefore, emotional response seems like the best bet by which to evaluate art work by. For myself, I’m looking for that piece that makes my jaw drop, my head to shake in disbelief and, if it’s really fucking something, to cry. How many comics have made me feel like this? Plenty, as a matter of fact, and what I’ve learned from the ones that do is that it’s almost always been on their own terms.
Darryl has written here recently about the dangers of comparing comics to other media. I’m not sure I got completely his point, but it all snapped into place when Harvey began vocalizing his doubts the other night. Worried that he might be in comics because he’s not good enough for real art (preposterous, as if I needed to say it), he betrayed a cultural embarrassment that I think is in a lot of us. The comics canon doesn’t share the respect or gravitas of literature’s, and for those of us who believe in taking the art form “higher,” it can seem like those heights can never be reached. If we look at the most well-regarded graphic novels, oftentimes we’ll find that they’re so “literary” that the power of the comics form is all but stripped away.
The question was raised whether it was more effective to describe a simple action (the example used, I think, was “John takes a shit”) or to draw it as comics. The answer, taking bias out of the equation, is that it depends on the goals of the artist, of course. Prose and poetry use words to a very specific effect, and if it your aim to deliver it quickly, without incident, then there’s the minimal approach. Conversely, there’s the Puzo approach where you belabor the action with detail. It depends on what you want to do. In the same way, comics offers its own advantages to representing this activity. In some ways the visual depiction grants you more stylistic leverage which might take less work energy than trying to achieve the same effect in words. Writing may seem like the more direct approach at first, but only if you’re thinking in writing terms – when seen through the lens of other media, you realize the seemingly limitless potential a scenario can offer.
The novel and film got out of the cultural ghetto by virtue of artists tapping into the unique power each form holds. In the end, it was the work itself that put an end to questions of whether the novel was capable of art or not. That’s not to say that some secret was unlocked, barring the future from garbage. Again, here we veer into the territory of taste and general consensus, but as far as the greater discourse is concerned, there are loose Venn diagrams of agreed-upon great work amid the agreed-upon not very good.
If you would argue that comics has not yet produced work that belongs in the more positive of the two preceding diagrams, it’s flawed logically to then argue that it’s impossible that the form ever will. I can’t make any predictions or insist that something will happen eventually, but I do see the medium as still being very young. Or perhaps you believe that comics _have_ produced such work already. I’m not sure entirely where I fit between those extremes – I see a lot of wonderful work in the past and a whole lot of room to grow. Whichever way things shake out, I believe that the comics that explore their comics-ness have a better shot at cultural significance – in the long run – than ones that follow the patterns of other forms.
This is not to say that I don’t want to see comics borrowing from film, music, poetry and so on. I am absolutely a proponent of taking the things that move you in life and putting them into your art, whatever it may be. I see so much potential in the path where comics incorporate elements from other media, growing from addition. I see this as distinctly different than simply making a movie in comics form, but in the end, I feel that the artist’s impulse trumps the dictates of the medium. How else can we really figure out what all of the dictates of the medium even are?
Before I wrap this up, I also want to add that I’m weary of ever feeling like one has seen it all. This kind of relates to the taste thing, in a way. Throughout 2009, I gave myself a really intensive crash-course in comics history, absorbing everything I could at a crazy rate. By the end of it, it was easy to feel pretty pleased with myself and how much I had learned. It didn’t take long, of course, when the reality hit me that this game is filled with people as passionate as I am, probably more, who have forgotten more than I can ever hope to know. Keeping this in mind, I’m always on the lookout for something new and exciting, and I’ve found that this outlook rarely disappoints.
And here’s the most emotional reaction I ever had to a comic, or at least the one nearest my memory: when I read Joseph Lambert’s I Will Bit You, I was gaping my mouth, shaking my head, crying all over the pages, shouting to everyone else in the room. I believe I had this reaction because Joe’s book is straight comics, in all their glory.
By the way, James has some of his really amazing work available now through Blank Slate Books. Do yourself a favor and snatch it up.