Friday, October 14, 2005

Welcome To The Terrordome

I don't suppose that people like you and I were the target audience for Peter Schjedahl's recent critical roundup of the comics medium ("Words and Pictures", in the October 17th issue of The New Yorker). Given the nature of the subject, it is perhaps natural that a critic such as Schjedahl would conceive of tackling an entire medium in the course of a single article -- indeed, while we may quibble with omissions and miscalculations, it's hard to argue with the general sentiment, which would seem to be: comics have had a rocky history, but they've produced some good works, and here are a few. If this article inspires a handful of adventurous dilettantes to sample Jimmy Corrigan or Safe Area Gorazde, then it can pat itself on the back for a job well done.

But still, two steps forward, one step back. It's hard to avoid the note of casual dismissal that creeps in and around certain of Schjedahl's phrasings -- "graphic novels are a young person's art", "[graphic novels] induce an enveloping kind of emotional identification that makes them only too congenial to adolescent narcissism". This is perhaps to be expected from someone in the position of surveying the entire territory based on a bare sampling, with pre-existing prejudices swayed but not yet obliterated. The fact is that while Schjedahl approaches his subject with an admirable brio, the scope of this article is just too small to convincingly tackles such a wide spectrum.

First, the dogged subliminal insistence of the "graphic novel" as some definitional boundary outside the stream of the conventional comics medium is persistently grating. Repeatedly, Schjedahl takes opportunities to separate the modern crop of "graphic novelists" from their antecedents in the worlds of strip cartooning and their cousins in "grownup cartooning" (his peculiarly loaded term for The New Yorker's cartoons). It goes without saying that any conception of the comics form as anything but a holistic continuum is hopelessly reductive, and ultimately quite counter-productive.

Schjedahl refers to Jimmy Corrigan as "the first formal masterpiece of a medium that he has proved to be unexpectedly complex and fertile". Now, seriously, as good as Jimmy Corrigan is, can anyone really make the argument that it's demonstratively superior to every possible alternative? You'd have to get up pretty early in the morning to convince me that it was measurably better, even if you used the vague phrasing of "formal masterpiece" as invitation to wiggle, than Louis Riel, Epileptic or From Hell, to mention just three recent achievements. Schjedahl seems to believe that a graphic novel should only be judged against other graphic novel - again, overlooking just how unimportant format is to the medium - which means that it probably goes without saying that Krazy Kat, Peanuts and Love & Rockets were probably excluded from discussion.

But then again, Louis Riel, Epileptic, From Hell and Love & Rockets aren't even mentioned in passing. The only reason I can conceive for these omissions is simply that Schjedahl hasn't read these books. I will note that none of the above, despite their inarguable primacy in any discussion of modern cartooning, have been published or repackaged by big-time mainstream New York publishing firms -- which seems to be the unstated focus of the article. Drawn & Quarterly gets a mention of Guy Delisle's "Pyongyang", but that's all - hardly a banner outing for the Farrar, Straus & Giroux publicity machine.

He refers to Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis as "the best first-person graphic novel to date", a baffling decision. I've made no secret of the fact that I think Satrapi is widely overrated, but even taking the unquestioned virtues of the Persepolis series into account I cannot conceive of a universe wherein Epileptic or any of Eddie Campbell's autobiographical works are not manifestly superior.

But then, Eddie Campbell, along with Alan Moore, hardly fit into Schjedahl's narrative. From Hell is hardly a work of "emotional narcissism", and despite its taboo status as an object of collaboration it is still one of the best pieces of cartooning ever put between two covers. I can certainly understand Schjedahl's disinterest to engage in even the most urbane of Moore's genre work, but again, this is another instance where omission implies ignorance. (Of course, it's also worth pointing out that From Hell is never likely to gain much of a mainstream following, because it's represents a type of book that nobody seems much interested in any any medium - the heavy historical novel of ideas. Paging Thomas Mann . . . )

Is it wrong to think that a critic like Schjedahl has a responsibility to advertise at least a modicum of familiarity with his subject? When he speaks enthusiastically about books he obviously likes, such as Jimmy Corrigan, he manages to overcome the inherent limitations of this kind of survey piece. But there's a whole new generation of cartoonists coming up who show the promise of being every bit as good as any generation in the medium's history, so proclaiming that "there may never be another graphic novel as good as Jimmy Corrigan" seems resolutely specious. Comparisons to Modern poets don't seem especially productive either, considering the comic medium's populist roots. By the time Eliot wrote "The Wasteland", the Moderns had already set themselves at an abstruse angle from the general public, so it makes sense that the movement degenerated into academic folderol. Wait another ten years and see what the Fort Thunder crew, Kevin Huizenga, Paul Hornschemier, Anders Nilson or Jeffrey Brown have managed to slap between two covers, not to mention any number of still-active veterans. Hell, Crumb's forthcoming adaptation of the Book of Genesis alone stands to put all these calculations on their head. I'd love if, in a decade's time, Schjedahl was still around to eat his own words, because I have no doubt that they will require eating.

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