Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Thin Line

Despite it's near universal acclaim, Alison Bechdel's Fun Home has struck a funny note with certain comics readers. A backlash was, perhaps, inevitable, considering the extreme praise meted out by the likes of Time magazine -- and sure enough, a quick peek at the Journal's message board (please don't look for too long or you'll go blind) reveals that the book's success has exacerbated a few long-standing trends in the comics community. A recent post by Tom Spurgeon on the unrelated topic of Wally Wood's abbreviated life and career offers an interesting summation of this division from a point situated firmly in the middle of the spectrum:
One of the most exciting things about comics is that the medium can support what seems to me like two entirely different ways of reading the form: a kind of comics by suggestion, where the comic seems to exist in some idealized state that is the sum of triggers and approximations within the work, and a kind of comics by tactile experience, where comics are more literally marks on a page that cohere on that level before being allowed to serve as abstractions or approximations of anything.

I think that while Spurgeon is for the most part one hundred percent correct, I would go one step further in that I think the division is even simpler than even that. Essentially, you've got two ways of reading comics: comics as literature and comics as visual art. For the longest time fans of serious (or, "serious") comics were essentially forced into a bunker mentality, wherein any divisions in reading preferences were essentially swept under the rug by the blanket shared assumption that comics were a valid vehicle for potentially meaningful art. But now the bunker's been blown, and the good guys won. Now it's time to examine the fact that even though mainstream audiences are increasingly interested in the form, they are bringing their own prejudices and preferences to the table -- to a comics insider (and I think most folks reading these words can safely qualify), it may seem inexplicable, but it's only to be expected.

Comics are a complicated art form. The variety of approaches available to any prospective cartoonist on how to tell a story is probably close to infinite. There's an old argument in fanboy circles - usually given in terms of corporate comics' division of labor - about which is more important: art or writing. It makes a certain kind of sense, in a corner of the medium where these tasks are compartmentalized and even, in many instances, in direct competition, to place them at odds. But when discussing the actual product itself, an artistic entity known in the abstract as "Comics", it should be impossible to differentiate between the two. But this isn't how most people probably read comics. Lacking the funds to sponsor an independent academic study on the matter, I'm going to guess that many people who read comics - especially those who came to the form late in life, like anyone who may have initially been exposed to the likes of Ware, Satrapi or Bechdel from magazine articles or newspaper lists - see comics less as a holistic whole and more as simply a hybrid. It may seem like a meaningless distinction but it's actually vital to how people perceive the format. For them, and probably for most, the words in the boxes and balloons are the primary vehicle, and the pictures merely illustrate the action. This is how many people grow up reading super comics, or at least it was in an era (which I very vividly recall) when printing was abysmal and most artists were, at best, journeymen: you read the captions and skimmed the art, and you never missed much by doing this. The interesting action always announced itself.

But that's an unfulfilling approach to comics. Fun Home is a good comic, some might even say a very good comic, but it falls short of truly essential for the very simple reason that throughout the book Bechdel purposefully hampers her own visual vocabulary. Reading the book, it's impossible not to come away with an awareness and appreciation of her pacing and structure. This is a book that has been expertly designed in terms of allowing every step of the plot to unfold with utter precision. Every revelation, every character moment, every allusion reveals itself to the reader in good time, unfolding like a blooming flower. But it seemed to me that, while Bechdel is obviously a keenly talented storyteller, her instincts as a cartoonist were perhaps hobbled by the sobriety of her story. The book reads less like a graphic novel than a prose novel with accompanying pictures - not a problem I've ever noticed with her Dykes to Watch Out For strip, which is far looser in both tone and execution.

The comparison to Chris Ware is revealing. Ware is another cartoonist who works in a mode that could be confidently termed "novelistic", in terms of his pacing, his approach to character, his overall structural development. But the key difference is that all of these elements of Ware's work are communicated as much through the art and design elements as through pure narration. A prose adaptation of Jimmy Corrigan could perhaps communicate the gist of the story, but Ware's work is filled with so many dense and intertwined visual metaphors that it is nearly impossible to imagine even the most talented prose writer achieving anything near the same effect - perhaps a similarly interesting and perceptive effect, but not the same. Not so with Fun Home. The most interesting visual effect Bechdel consistently employs throughout the book is a two-tiered narrative structure involving parallel events in the narrative captions and the action in the panels. It's not hard to imagine any prose author or creative filmmaker concocting some sort of analogue. The best comics have consistently been those in which the medium's most unique capabilities are manipulated to sublime effect; on these grounds, Fun Home qualifies as an extremely conservative work.

Which is not, I hasten to say, in any way meant to downgrade Bechdel's work. She's an able cartoonist and Fun Home is a significant achievement. But this is by no means the visionary, transformative piece of literature that the plaudits may imply, and I believe this is the source of the significant dissension from some in the comics community. But it is an extremely accessible work, the kind of book that someone with little or no experience in the medium can easily pick up, understand and judge to be of lasting value. I don't believe that Fun Home is a great comic because its approach to visual metaphor is extremely sedated. Comics, as an expression of "pure" cartooning (of the type associated with, say, Wally Wood or Mat Brinkmann, to pick two seemingly diametric opposites), are only as powerful as their visual metaphors. But understanding what makes someone like Brinkmann or Gary Panter or George Herriman so great takes a bit more visual acumen than a novice comics reader usually possesses; and asking that same novice to understand the greatness of a Wally Wood or a Jack Kirby or an Alex Toth is almost impossible, because without the proper training all the elaborate visual metaphors and powerful storytelling in the world is just so much bafflegab. To an audience trained to judge the merits of narrative art on a purely literary basis, learning to comprehend the communicative potential of pure craft and expressionistic technique may take some acclimation. It's not that this hypothetical audience does not have a high visual literacy, but it takes a bit of practice to be able to read comics with as much an eye for visual metaphors as for purely narratological concerns. It's easy for most people to take for granted, but reading comics requires doing a number of very complicated things on a swift and purely subconscious basis - reading words, interpreting symbols, understanding incomplete metaphors constructed with both visual and verbal cues, all while hopefully maintaining a brisk pace. It doesn't seem like a lot when you're reading Marmaduke . . .

Perhaps it sounds slightly elitist, to say so plainly that advanced cartooning requires an advanced knowledge of the medium of the type that a layman might not possess? It's no different from any other art form: the most purely expressionist prose requires a similarly educated readership; likewise, accomplished cinema depends on an educated and open-minded audience. Considering just how recently comics have come into their own as a legitimate artistic branch (at least in the perception of the "outside world"), there's still a long way to go before we can reasonably expect a general audience to be comics-literate enough to properly appreciate the work of, say, Brian Chippendale or Kim Dietch (two artists who released books which could also be considered legitimate contenders for the best comic of 2006). Bechdel is a talented artist, but her artistic goals regarding Fun Home are much more modest than those of either Ninja or Shadowlands. It is perhaps a disservice to her work to conflate the unquestioned success with which she achieves these goals, with greater notions of aesthetic value which must invariably be tied to works of greater ambition both in terms of form and content.

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