The New York Review of Books: Comics for Grown-Ups (via MeFi’s indefatigable y2karl)

David Hadju writes about Joe Sacco’s Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde, as well as Dan Clowes’ Ghost World.

The particular critical meme the writer’s chasing is pretty hoary by now – but it simply never seems to stick in the marketplace. I found it interesting, as well, that Hadju’s addressing some pretty well-aged material – all these books are over five years old, if I recall correctly.

Despite the age of the works, they are are well worth reading and beg for critical consideration outside the alt-comics ghetto. Sacco’s work, in particular, has begun to break out, partly because of his continued pursuit of comics-slash-journalism.

On preview, the premise that Mr. Hadju brings is questionable, however. He begins the piece with the assertion that “over that past ten years or so” the pursuit of the Great American Graphic Novel is producing bloated and overloaded work that he likens to seventies symphonic rock. No specific example of these bloated works is provided, although he tut-tuts over the “more than a thousand” graphic novels published in the wake of Maus.

As the title to the story promises, this is the ususal non-comics-world critical approach: assume that your reader thinks comics suck, affirm that prejudice, and then point out that not ALL comics suck, that the brave reviewer just happens to have excavated these shining gems from the muck. It’s absurd and demeaning. When was the last time you saw SF reviewed with this formally-expected preamble? How about a Steven King novel, speaking of bloated works? Can you imagine a review of a serious new literary work prefaced with a lengthy disquisition generically lamenting the state of books in general as a consequence of an expanded movement toward adopting artistically ambitious writing practices and themes?

More absurdly, Mr. Hadju notes that “It has become commonplace for comics artists to generate complete stories, leaving empty word balloons in the panels; only when the art is finished does a “writer” come in, filling the blanks with dialogue to accommodate the imagery.” Had Mr. Hadju provided some specific examples of comics that employ this practice, I would not have felt it necessary to note the following.

This is most likely a misconstrual of a practice used to divide the labor under commercial comics production – there is, necessarily, a script that both artist and letterer follow. Amusingly, Mr. Hadju reverently cites Will Eisner’s A Contract with God early in the essay as the initial American graphic novel. The studio system of penciller, inker, letterer was partially developed under Eisner’s guidance in the 1940’s when he co-founded an early and influential studio workshop that produced commercially-oriented comics on contract for the various comics publishers of the day.

Further amusement: the work today is generally performed on a computer and the art of the pen-and-ink letterer is distinctly a dying art form.

2 thoughts on “Comics and critical attention

  1. Just one minor correction: Safe Area Gorazde was published in 2000, and is therefore less than five years old.

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