Monday, February 12, 2007

Comic Books Don't Need to be Novels

A couple of years ago, the New Yorker, with characteristic humility and quiet grace, discovered the graphic novel and declared that they were, at long last, "coming of age." You can read the whole article here, but you can get the gist of the article in the following lines:

"Over-the-topness is endemic to the comics, of course—an industry standard for popular action and horror titles, as well as for manga... But it is ill suited to serious subjects, especially those that incorporate authentic social history."

The article spends most of its time self-consciously (in my opinion) reviewing "serious" and "realistic" work - Chris Ware's seminal "Jimmy Corrigan" and biographic/journalistic work like "Persepolis" - and explicitly denying the "novelistic" quality of more mainstream comics (ie, superheroes, and manga). The works it reviews are all stellar in their own way, but something always bothers me about this article - it seems to be praising the comics for "growing into" the graphic novel, leaving behind the silliness of Superman and discovering the "reality" of R. Crumb.

This is ludicrous, since the "over-the-topness" of comics has really always been its allure. Critics like the New Yorker guy look at the whole superhero/fantasy thing as if it were an adolescent stage - like teething - that the comics had to get through before they could get down to real, "serious" work. As "American Born Chinese" shows, you don't need to be "serious" in any sort of recognizable to be piercing and heartbreaking. Really, alot of the pleasure of "ABC" comes from how it pushes the fantasy/over-the-topness of the medium so far - think of the Monkey King's Kung-Fu moves - while combining it with a quieter visual pacing in Jin's story. The comic-book roots of "ABC" are obvious - but you can also trace the story back to magical realism. In fact, you could argue that the best comic books out there really exemplify the best trait of magical realism - treating the fantastic like it's everyday, and the everyday like it's fantastic.

One of the best comics I read recently was "Infinite Crisis," which is pretty much at the exact opposite end of the genre spectrum from "ABC." It's one of those massive company-wide events that DC and Marvel throw occasionally, crossing over with all the comic book, featuring every character who has ever appeared in any comic ever. On one hand, the plot is a patented sort of comic book ludicrousity - infinite realities merging together, minor-league heroes dying - but what makes "Crisis" so enjoyable is its treatment of the big guns, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman. These are characters who've been around for going on 70 years, so it's hard to find anything really new about them. Instead, good writers mess around with the iconography - they force the characters to examine themselves (which is very much in vogue in comics now - moreso than in, say, the 40s), but they also remember to include a good fight here and there.

As a lifelong collector of comics (I mostly stopped in high school, and even so I've got enough saved in boxes to fill a small Money Bin), I've always been a bit suspicious of the phrase "graphic novel." It's like calling Television "Graphic Radio," defining one medium in relation to another rather than as its own distinctive entity. I don't think "ABC" is a novel - I think it's better than a novel. It incorporates so many archetypes from other media - movies, TV sitcoms, folk tales, and the heritage of comic books. Like all comic book stories, it's told in "episodes." The episodic structure of comic books makes them much more similar to television, in my opinion, than novels. Certainly it's no accident that many of the creators of the recent successful SF-themed TV shows - Lost, Battlestar Galactica, Heroes - are all comics fans.

A great comic is the best of all narrative worlds - the dynamic visual sensibility of movies, the slow-building episodic structure of television, the graphic precision of great painting, and the all-important silence of novels. It's impossible to say whose perspective "ABC" is told from, because it's everybody - Jin, the Monkey King, God, and Gene Yang. Novels can't do that. Maybe Faulkner can do that. But that's the exception that proves the rule.

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