GODS OF NOT VERY MUCH
I just finished reading Charles McGrath's supposedly serious look at graphic novels that ran in yesterday's New York Times magazine and has been spreading its cancer across the internet. What a turgid piece of condescension. Here is a link if you can be bothered (you have to register). He rounds up the usual suspects and attempts to make a case for comics as a serious artform.
Except he doesn't, really. He works from the viewpoint that comics could possibly replace prose in a world where video games and TV are killing our attention spans and ability to absorb complex narratives, and then disimissing all comics books except for the ones he wants to focus on. This includes gettering rid of manga in one sentence, writing the whole of Japanese comics off as "books that feature slender, wide-eyed teenage girls who seem to have a special fondness for sailor suits." There is so much ignorance in those 17 words, I would have to go through each word one by one just to debunk it. He pushes Clowes, Ware, Sacco, Seth, Tomine, and Spiegelman to the forefront, not once acknowledging that this is a little like saying that no one knows how to read very well but Borges, Barthes, and Robbe-Grillet are going to change the course of illiteracy by making books accessible again.
And that's even if you agree with his theory that comics are somehow for a new generation of mouth-breathers who find the intricacies of John Grisham too much to digest. It's ludicrous. So, shove that assertion aside, and then let's ask, are these really the guys who are going to fuel the new generation of comics and keep the medium alive? To a degree, but I've been saying for a while now that this old guard of alternative comics, as good as most of them are, represent a world that is just as closed off from the bulk of the population as superhero comic books--and like the raging fanboys that this side of comics often decries (a bit like the closeted jock picking on the effeminate kid), they like it that way. They want to horde the crumbs of success and recognition because, like capes and tights, the chronic masturbator cartoonist is just as outmoded as the kid who wants to be Superman and beat up the bullies that pick on him.
I'm not trying to tear down this work, and must say that I've read and do read a ton of what the above-named folks do. I adore Seth, and think Sacco is amazing, to single out just two. What I am railing against is this condescension wrapped in glad-handing, and the myopic theory that this is all there is. Evan Dorkin once said something along the lines that all we tend to offer the world is a picture of comics as either B-movie slasher flicks or Akira Kurosawa films, ignoring the vast canyon of material inbetween. Artful comics are not just about McGrath's summation of "longing, loss, sexual frustration, loneliness and alienation," and certainly not the limited mode of expression that he espouses. (It's also not nearly the man's world he asserts. He can only come up with the names of four female cartoonists, missing people like Chynna Clugston-Major, Jill Thompson, Christine Norrie, Laurenn McCubbin, Ariel Schrag, Renee French, etc., all of who either fit his mold or show that there is actually much more to a comic book life than lonely guys who can't get dates).
Is R. Crumb the single most important figure in the world of modern comics? No, I'd say from the last twenty-five years, it's Matt Wagner. Wagner showed that you could work between the worlds of art and commerce much the way an auteur film director does, making your own arthouse pictures and then doing a big studio blockbuster. He also did it without being a poorly socialized shut-in, which McGrath suggests is almost required to be a successful cartoonist (Sacco being his exception to prove his own rule). Similarly, is Crumb the single biggest influence on the newest generation of cartoonists? Doubtful. Is even Chris Ware, arguably the top of the game? Not really. The names I saw over and over again as an editor were the Hernandez Bros. (mentioned several times in the article, to be fair), Paul Pope, manga artists like Rumiko Takahashi, Evan Dorkin, and Jhonen Vasquez, with Chynna Clugston-Major and Craig Thompson gaining speed in the last few years. Just as Frank Miller had shoved aside Jack Kirby to influence a whole new crop of mainstream artists, and himself started to take a backseat to Mike Mignola, Mike Allred, and some of the Image crew, so are these people at the forefront of creating a new language for alternative comics that will do more to push comics into the mainstream than anything that has come before. (Note: Allred and Mignola also carry with them a lot of influence in the indie world.)
In addition to those names, I'd be remiss if I didn't note that where McGrath got it right was by noting the vast influence of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, as well. He says they have "something like auteur status...writers whose comics are worth paying attention to no matter who draws them." I would agree with that. They brought to comics a sense that the writing should be taken seriously, a torch picked up by Brian Bendis, Greg Rucka, Neal Shaffer, Warren Ellis, Antony Johnston, and others.
God bless Evan Dorkin
McGrath knew enough about how the press at large has looked at comic books to make fun of all the "Zap! Pow!" headlines, but apparently is not self-aware enough to know he lives in the house across the street, which is just as blind to the reality of the comic book world as what he is ridiculing.