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Oct
15
2009

Has Comics as an Art Form “Arrived”? Don’t Count on It…

stitches

It’s great to see comics getting more press and more recognition in the form of awards and awards nominations.  Whenever some high-profile instance of this occurs, those of us who are interested in comics tend to see these sorts of events as indicators that comics is finally beginning to receive the recognition and appreciation it justifiably deserves.  I recall a conversation I was having with another cartoonist a few years back (I can’t remember who exactly–maybe James Sturm?) and he declared simply, “Comics has arrived.”   Has it though?

The latest high-profile nod to a graphic novel is from the National Book Awards, which has selected illustrator David Small’s childhood comics memoir, Stitches, as a nominee in its literature for young people category (an odd category for this particular book, but that’s a whole other discussion).  A comment or two into the discussion from the link above , someone says, “…it is great that Graphic Novels are getting realized as real literature by mainstream sources.”  As you can see if you scroll down, I’m not sure I can really agree with this.  Rather than further derail the discussion over at The Beat (which really should be about congratulating David Small, not grousing about other stuff) I thought I’d address my concerns here instead.

My point is straightforward: until there’s a sizable adult readership for comics/graphic novels which do not derive their appeal from a factual/memoir-based connection to their narratives, comics cannot be said to have truly “arrived” as an art form.  Yes there are a number of GNs that have sold well in the mass market, but the vast majority of them rely on the novelty of some kind of appeal to events or circumstances beyond simply a well-crafted narrative to do so: the author’s tragic childhood (Stitches, Fun Home, Blankets), the author’s personal involvement in political strife and/or war (MAUS, Palestine, Persepolis), the author’s tragedy in adulthood (Cancer Vixen, various other cancer-related books), etc.   (And of course, there are things like Watchmen that “regular people” will buy when movies are made of them.)  Where is the readership, though, for general fiction GNs?  Beyond comics folk, I’d say it’s in the realm of very small to non-existent.

I certainly don’t mean to deride or de-value the recognition that comics seems to be getting these days in the form of awards, nominations and high-profile reviews; I simply question whether that recognition is truly translating into a readership that’s interested in comics beyond its current “novelty value” in the publishing market.  (A book about surviving cancer?  And it’s, like, a comic book!? OMG!!!)  Cartoonist Ted Rall raised a similar point about MAUS in his now-notorious 1999 essay for The Village Voice, “The King of Comics.”  In it, he asks as a thought experiment to, “…consider the sales potential of a similar work about the Turkish genocide of Armenians.”  I think the more pertinent point now, ten years later, is to try to imagine the sales potential of a similar work if it were entirely fictional–if it were, say, a science fiction work about a war and holocaust far, far in the future.

There’s certainly no reason to be a full-on “gloomy Gus,” though.  I’m delighted to see the art form get the sort of recognition it’s getting and I think it’d be great if Stitches won a National Book Award.  You won’t hear me griping about GNs being reviewed in the New York Times, nor is there anything not encouraging about only having to explain what a “graphic novel” is to maybe 75% of people who hear the term, but I think it’s important to be realistic about where the art form is in its development and readership.  When the guy who wanders into Borders to pick up the latest Dan Brown novel also picks up a copy of Bookhunter because it looks interesting, color me convinced.

4 comments

1 ping

  1. Jesse Post says:

    I agree it definitely doesn’t “count” if people are reading something only because it’s a movie. But I think it does count if people are reading it because it’s about something they’re generally interested in, like cancer or genocide or coming-of-age because that’s how normal people generally buy books — their interest in a subject or an author. I guess in a way it should be the main purchase reason and the format and medium should be mostly irrelevant. Know what I mean?

    Of course, there are people like me who read things I may not be interested in simply because they’re comics and I love the medium, but I’m weird. I hope that one day I’m in the minority of comics readers and that the majority just pass through when we bother to publish something they like.

    Though, at closer look, I think you’re making a subtly more complex point than that — like people are “giving this weird comics thing a chance” more than they’re actually accepting it. That’s totally annoying.

  2. Ben says:

    I’ve probably not articulated my point well enough in my original post. Specifically, it’s not that there’s anything particularly problematic about the subjects I mention (genocide, cancer, whatever..); it’s that there’s this peculiar phenomenon in which a GN about such subjects seems to be something a general readership is interested in if–and only if–the book is a memoir. A fictional book about genocide (as in the “fictional MAUS” example I mention) isn’t likely to generate the same interest. Hence, my argument that there’s a real comics “novelty” element at work here.

    Perhaps it’s that I come at this from the perspective of someone who creates comics as well as reads them. I just wish that–just as a prose author can–I could produce a solid, interesting work of fiction with the reasonable expectation (assuming it’s any good, that is!) that there would be an audience for it. Right now, as I see it, you don’t have that expectation in comics unless the work in question satisfies some very peculiar conditions that relate to things largely outside of the work itself and are particular to comics that have achieved a broad readership among readers of “regular” prose literature: whether it’s “true life,” various gender/identity politics stuff, etc.

  3. Ben says:

    OK – I’ve revised the post a bit. Hopefully this articulates my point more clearly.

  4. Ben Cohen says:

    Already Converted

  1. THE BEAT » Blog Archive » Kibbles ‘n’ Bits, 10/16/09 says:

    […] but putting an adult memoir in the kids section just because it’s a graphic novel, isn’t all that progressive and reveals a gap in the Comics Revolution: My point is straightforward: until there’s a sizable […]

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