Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Can comic books be art?

This review of the comics issue of McSweeney's has been upsetting some people around the world of blogging. In it, Martin Rowson takes aim at the urge to believe that comic books can be great art. He gets truly heated up by the end:

This [the McSweeney's issue] is yet another sally in that old, old struggle to get comics to be taken seriously and recognised by the adult world in general as "respectable".
Except that comics aren't and shouldn't be respectable. The closest they should come to the adult world is as a kind of foul-mouthed, filthy-minded and grubby adolescence, with adolescents of all ages duly sequestered in that teenage bedroom and, between bouts of what teenagers do, thumbing through thin, flimsy funnies instead of damaging their wrists trying to hold this latest over-weighty, overproduced whinge. Ware, after all, is rich and famous, and thanks to this book will doubtless be mobbed by the thousands and thousands of ageing retards for whom comics still float their boat. Which is fine, but I wish he and the rest of them would accept that, in the ecology of culture, comics flourish where they are for a reason, and so he should stop pushing against an open door into an empty room.

Linking to this, the Literary Saloon says:
but it's nice to see someone argue that all this talk that comics should be taken seriously has gone too far

The Return of the Reluctant comments further on this idea:
There have been too many insalubrious suggestions from the "comics as literature" crowd without justification or solid arguments. It's one thing to state it, but it comes across as a callow undergraduate announcing for the umpteenth time that God is dead. It's another thing to have someone like James Wood or Christopher Hitchens weighing in on the matter and offering a proper historical or critical perspective. Ergo, it's nice to see someone rock the boat (with admittedly too much gusto), if only to get the pro-comics crowd reconsidering their arguments.

Bookslut dismisses the whole thing out of hand:
Oh, Jesus fucking Christ. Someone is trying really hard to be controversial, aren't they? I got the link from The Literary Saloon, who seems to agree. A certain someone also insists I should have arguments to back up my claim that comics are literature. But this article doesn't make me want to defend my claim. It makes me roll my eyes and get along with my day, just as any other boneheaded statement meant to get people angry would. I can't be bothered to care. More 100 Bullets for me.

So a tempest in a teapot, but those are my favorite kind. I, for one, agree with Bookslut's dismissal of the article. Rowson is so nasty at the end there. My biggest problem with Rowson's article is the statement "Except that comics aren't and shouldn't be respectable." Is he trying to set himself up as some guardian of art? Is there any reason why comics shouldn't be accepted as having the potential to be art?
As for the more reasonable request that we comic fans should tell the world what the classics, the "Ulysses" or "Canterbury Tales" of the comic book world, are, I can name a few.
Here's a few comic books I believe are masterpieces (with links to Amazon so you can buy them and decide for yourself):
From Hell, Watchmen, Maus, Jim Woodring's Frank series, Sandman, Harvey Pekar comics, Through the Habitrails, Love & Rockets, Mr. Punch, A Contract With God, Jar of Fools.
Some of those are the books everybody mentions, some are personal to me, but I think they are all important in some way. And I haven't included some single issues of comics by people like Bernard Krigstein, Dan Clowes and David Mazzuchelli that are also beautiful, important art. For that matter, I haven't included any foreign works that also deserve notice.
Maybe people are going crazy for comics now because they are hot. And maybe some comic books are being overrated because of this. But I don't see how that makes any difference to whether comic books can be art.
I would like to see somebody make a cogent argument as to why comic books can't be art that isn't based on the fans ("foul-mouthed, filthy-minded and grubby adolescence") or particular bad examples (if you take a bad comic off a comic book store shelf at random, I can also walk into a book store and easily find a trashy novel just as bad.) Do people believe there is something inherently wrong with comics that keeps them from being art?
I just don't get it.
Anyway, I'm not the best person to make the argument, but I felt somebody should be sticking up for them.
Now that I've written all this, I notice that Rowson is an editorial cartoonist. (Maybe many of you know this?) Could this put a whole different spin on things? Here's an interview with him on politics, which inludes this paragraph:
But Rowson is not one of those who bangs on about the 'power of the cartoon' and its potential impact on political life. 'The fact that I do horrible drawings of politicians doesn't disempower them in any way at all - and what I can do is nothing compared to what they can do, because they have power over my destiny.'

Maybe he just hates himself (or thinks comic books are beneath editorial cartoons.) Whatever.

1 comment:

gwenda said...

I agree with you and Bookslut... this is just silly. I wish someone archived Wiscon speeches, because this really makes me want to locate China Mieville's from a couple of years ago -- in which he started off by saying that people who read books shouldn't pat themselves on the back so much, especially by looking down their noses at television and other popular artforms.

I think comics would be included in that. It seems like condescending, bourgeouis posturing to me. Bleh.