McSweeney’s #13

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 21, 2004

A few weeks months ago, I chose this book as the first official selection of the unofficial kottke.org book club. The idea of the book club is that I tell you what book I?m going to read next, you can read along if you?d like, and then we get together to discuss it in the comments of a thread like this one.

What a terrible idea?I apologize for even suggesting it. I have trouble reviewing books as it is without the added pressure of a deadline and having people (if any of you actually chose to follow along) who read the book depending on me getting some sort of rip-roaring conversation going. As a result, even though I finished the book weeks and weeks ago, I?ve been avoiding writing this review. However, since I got myself into this, I?m going to give it a shot and hope that someone else can rescue us with a thoughtful, knowledgeable review of the book and/or the comics format in the comments. Here we go.

Many of my friends are into comics in one way or another. I never was, not even as a kid (ok, not exactly true?I really liked Bloom County). I go into comic shops, thumb through comic books and graphic novels, and leave wondering what the hell all the fuss is about. I guess you could say I don?t get comics. Which is odd because as a sort of socially awkward dork, I should identify with many of the characters in the stories and the artists drawing them (and I mean that in a good way).

A few years ago, I bought Chris Ware?s perfect Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, one of my all-time favorite pieces of media. But that?s been the exception to the rule for me and comics. McSweeney?s #13 contained a comic by Chris Ware (he designed the wonderful dust cover as well); it, The Little Nun strips by Mark Newgarden, and the wonderfully spare comics by Richard McGuire (which reminded me of Powers of Ten) were the highlights for me.

So instead of a review, a question. What am I missing here? Why do you enjoy comics and/or graphic novels? I can guess why they are appealing, but I?d rather hear about it from you guys.

Reader comments

MikeNov 21, 2004 at 2:25PM

We like comic books because we’ve seen something in the medium we liked.

Vonnegut compared writing to holding a conversation on a train. You are holding the attention of the person you are talking to, but speaking clear enough so anyone listening in understands what you are saying. I would have to say this was true for any medium of communication, no less so if it’s a comic book. If you’re good, the people listening in at least understand why the conversation is interesting to the person you’re talking to. If you’re great, you will break a paradigm.

You say you like Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, but I don’t remember you mentioning what makes the book engaging to you. I can say one of the best movies I ever saw was the Japanese animated “SpiritedAway” because it’s a cartoon that addresses the relationship between gratification, identity, and the
soul. Talk about establishing a new paradigm.

AkaXakANov 21, 2004 at 2:32PM

It’s because some ideas are just better put forward without many words and simply facial expressions and body language.

Visual hints account for something like 70% (or even more, according to some) of the information we recieve when talking to someone. So why not use that on a paper format?

Of course, some things just get to tedious to write up in full sentances, so the visual approach makes it snappier and less work :-)*

* Like that.

LindsayNov 21, 2004 at 2:34PM

Blankets by Craig Thompson is beautiful - maybe you’d like that.

AkaXakANov 21, 2004 at 2:43PM

Oh, and your line breaks are not on the house.

MikeNov 21, 2004 at 2:51PM

After reviewing my post, I’ve decided it was terrible, like I’m some kind of creature pretending to be “one of you.” “How did these horns break out on my forehead? I fell down and hit my head doing one of those things us humans do, like watching a movie, or buying a Frankie Valli 8-track, or reading a Captain Marvel comic book — I’m such a mischievous rapscallion!” I don’t know what I should tell the humans. I’m sorry. Just forget comic books.

Fred SimontonNov 21, 2004 at 2:56PM

The graphic novel/comic genre offers a unique narrative format. In a paradoxical fashion, the illustrations can open up even more room for imagination/interpretation than traditional books. The last series I followed regularly was Gaimen’s Sandman and the subject matter made for some terrific and imaginative illustrations. That was over ten years ago, the closest I’ve been to the genre since is Max Payne. So, I guess when the strengths of illustrative storytelling are employed by talented artists, these pieces can be wildly entertaining and thought provoking.

Bloom County forever! (insert Bill The Cat devil horns sign)

jakeNov 21, 2004 at 3:00PM

i’m not hugely into comics, but classics like “The Dark Knight Returns”, Akira, The League of Extraordinary Gentleman- those are clearly great literature. If you experts out there had so suggest the top five comics/graphic novels of all time, what would they be?

Stefan JonesNov 21, 2004 at 3:10PM

I despise superhero comics, but I’ve lately come to enjoy a wide variety of non-genre comics. Ellis, Ware, some-but-not-all Clowes, Woodring. If I see or read about something interesting, I’ll buy that. Sometimes it’s a win (“Kings in Disguise”), sometimes it’s a dud, sometimes it’s in-between (Horricks’s “Hicksville”).

While I’m not entirely sure why, I find myself ordering and reading all of the Krazy Kat reprints. Looking at the phantasmagorical shifting backgrounds that Krazy, Ignatz, and Pup act out their weird-ass love triangle againt, I think that if he were alive today that Herriman might be doing really wild Flash animation.

I’m mainly a print person, but there are cases where good art can add to a story, or even carry it entirely.

I bought McSweeney’s #13 on the strength of Ware’s byline. I’ve been saving it. It could be that it is what results when an author is put in charge of a journal, rather than an editor.

SharonNov 21, 2004 at 3:29PM

To my mind, asking “Why do you like comics?” is like asking “Why do you like movies?” or “Why do you like books?” I don’t like ‘em all; I like individual instances. Comics is a medium for telling stories, and I’ve been caught up in some amazing stories.

I got my introduction to comics when a friend pressed Sandman into my hands and made me sit there and read it. After consuming the series three times, I realized I’d better broaden my horizons, lest I get labeled a Crazy Gaiman Fangirl. So I started to reach out. After hearing about it on NPR, I picked up Jimmy Corrigan from the library. Then Ghost World from the comic shop. Then, simply because it looked interesting, Orbiter.

It’s like I discovered a new wing at the library. Because comics is a medium rather than a genre (as Scott McCloud would tell you), it’s daunting to know where to start. Recommendations from friends are a good guide.

PurpleCarNov 21, 2004 at 3:54PM

JK, I’m confused. We can’t lump graphic novels and comic strips together, can we? I’ve followed certain newspaper print comic strips since I started reading, lumped the little bit of allowance money I had when I was 9 into the Peanuts (Charles Schulz) anthologies, and read X-Men and Ghost World when I was in high school. I’ve grown up with “For Better or for Worse” (Lynn Johnson) and still read that everyday. Graphic novels seem to be on a totally different plane, though.

I’ve never read a graphic novel, but I’m not averse - I like novels, I like art - it should work. But I left X-Men and the like because the writing really left a bit to be desired. Tired plot lines, flat characters. It was as if the authors needn’t develop character because they could actually physically draw the person, instead of “painting a picture” with words. I like having something left up to the imagination - it pulls the reader in, and makes the story seem more real.

ChrisNov 21, 2004 at 4:02PM

There’s a whole lot of different reasons to like comics. Some people like them because they tell the kinds of stories you can’t get in any other media — comics do superhero fiction better and cheaper than any other medium, so that’s why there’s so damn many of the things, but you can also look at something like CEREBUS — at 300 issues, that just might be one of the longest coherent (well, largely) stories ever told. There’s never been a book or series of books of comparable length by any single author in prose fiction that I’m aware of; that innovation alone — the sheer AMOUNT of story that’s possible in comics — is enough to pique my interest.

But also, over time, I’ve just really fallen in love with the formal language of comics — the way people who really love film will coo with awe over particularly good editing, or light design, I can be awed by certain arrangements of panels, storytelling beats, etc.

A lot of the really passionate love for comics comes out of being inoculated with them at a young age — I like some really highbrow stuff, but I also really love the X-Men because they’re what I grew up on. Imagine if you’d seen your first movie at 20, after a lifetime of growing up on prose fiction — what would you think about that way of telling a story? Or, to describe a shockingly large number of Americans, what if it was the other way around? Asking “what am I missing about comics” is a lot like someone asking “What am I missing about books?” I don’t mean that to sound insulting, honestly.

johnNov 21, 2004 at 4:02PM

I agree that #13 is stunning, as is most of McSweeney’s books. Chris Ware and Dan Clowes aren’t strangers to the publishing company….Clowes’ illustration is the “cover” of “I.” by Stephen Dixon, and Ware’s work is in issue #7 and adornes the large facade on 826 Valencia, the home to the McSweeney’s madness. excellent work indeed.

ChrisNov 21, 2004 at 4:05PM

Wow, I didn’t even see Sharon’s comment, but I echoed it identically. Great minds, etc.

joanneNov 21, 2004 at 4:13PM

I guess I’m another “don’t get it” type - though if I’m honest I’ve never really given comics a chance. I probably would if I had any clue where to start with them.

nickNov 21, 2004 at 4:14PM

I pick comics based on the art. the same reason i enjoy browsing the portfolios of illustrators. grin inducing eye candy. an envy of recognised talent. the plot and dialogue are just bonuses if done well. the same reasons i enjoy webcomics.
for a selection of artists, the recent flight anthology cant be beat.
other favourites include the surreal:
Frank - jim woodring
Cats Don’t Exist - jis
the fantastically detailed:
Big Guy and Rusty the Boy Robot and Hard Boiled - both written by frank miller and art by geof darrow
and the dark:
jthm and squee - jhonen vasquez

Patricio LópezNov 21, 2004 at 4:16PM

1. I like Graphic Novels of classic characters (The Dark Knight Returns, Robin Year 1, Batgirl Year 1, Superman: Red Son, Daredevil The Man Without Fear) because it’s interesting to see how the different writers and artists try to redefine archetypes. Classic superhero comics are all about riffing on very specific creations.

2. I like “independent” Graphic Novels (Watchmen, Sandman, Give Me Libery, MAUS) because they showcase expansive, layered stories and worlds. You can read Watchmen twenty times and find new and interesting details in the background and in the stoy every time. They are inmersive experiences, I can feel I am living inside these stories.

3. I like “blockbuster” Graphic Novels (Y the Last Man, Top Ten, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) because they do what Hollywood refuses to do: smart, intelligent, detailed science fiction on an epic scale.

nickNov 21, 2004 at 4:16PM

it robbed me of anchor tags and line breaks. :(

Patricio LópezNov 21, 2004 at 4:17PM

By “independent” I meant non-genre, btw.

Mike againNov 21, 2004 at 4:33PM

Yes, “Maus.” It uses cartoon mice to engage the reader in a subject most people can’t identify with or comprehend. It uses the medium to relate pretense and history perhaps as Dante or “Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy” have done.

Paul SantosNov 21, 2004 at 4:56PM

Cartoons are pictures, versus text. If you are into pictures, versus reading text (which are like little pictures, actually, if you think abou it), then comic books are essentially a lot of cartoons telling a story.

jkottkeNov 21, 2004 at 4:58PM

Sorry about the stripping out of HTML that was happening…I’ve fixed the problem.

Asking “what am I missing about comics” is a lot like someone asking “What am I missing about books?”

I see your point, but books have been around for several hundred years while comics — especially comics that are as richly done as the numerous examples mentioned here — are still a fairly new form of media. Most people aren’t missing much about books at this point because we’ve all grown up with them, but for someone who grew up at a time when comics were considered kids’ stuff, I’m wondering what’s compelling about the comics form as opposed to, say, the movie form or the book form for storytelling.

FaithNov 21, 2004 at 5:27PM

I like comics/graphic novels because you have a clear visual on what the characters look like. You can also see how their mannerisms are, how they react, and how other characters react to them in a much more succinct way than strings of text can. You can also see colors, and feel the setting much more clearly— it’s almost like a movie and a book combined, the best of both worlds.

ChrisNov 21, 2004 at 5:35PM

I’m wondering what’s compelling about the comics form as opposed to, say, the movie form or the book form for storytelling

For that, I’d say it’s just a question of learning the rhetorical devices of comic books, the way you have, perhaps subconsciously, for film and text. Like movies, the way comics are told is easy to ignore in favor of the story being told, it’s like lighting for the theatre: “it’s good if you don’t notice it.” But in the best comics, somebody’s given rigorous thought to the panels on the page, the points of view, their rhythms and placement, as well as to the parts that are left out, or modified or transformed by the text, etc.

I say “in the best comics” because 90% of contemporary genre fiction in comics doesn’t worry about things like that, but a book like Jimmy Corrigan does. It’s possible to do a very “conventional” comics story in terms of devices, the way a lot of films are “conventionally” told, and it’s possible to do some serious formal experimentation, like Jimmy Corrigan’s elaborately designed grids and streams, or like Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s We3, which is imitating/modifying cinematic “bullet time” by spraying dozens and dozens of tiny, minutely detailed images across the page.

When a comic’s really great, then both the writing (from dialogue and text straight through to plot, themes, pacing, etc.) and the art (from basic rendering to mood, shade, tones, page design, etc.) are both operating in perfect harmony, and they both do things that neither form of storytelling could do alone.

ChrisNov 21, 2004 at 6:11PM

And again, I think I’d probably take issue with your statement that people aren’t “missing something” in books — millions of people just don’t like reading. At all. The idea of chains of words modifying the previous chain to tell a story just doesn’t excite them the way a filmed re-enactment of fictional events does. I would guess that you believe that just about anybody can enjoy a good book if they know what to look for in one; it’s the same thing with comics.

JoelNov 21, 2004 at 6:43PM

The other night on Conan they used an illustration of Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan in one of there returns from commercials. I thought it was a pretty cool homage to Chris Ware.

Jordan WinickNov 21, 2004 at 8:58PM

I think what really makes comics as a medium compelling is the ability of storytelling to function in a way that is unlike books, film, etc. Comics are probably most similar to film and animation (versus linguistic writing) in that they combine visual narrative with dialogue, the primary difference being that film tells a story by juxtaposing still images in a chronological sequence and at a constant rate (usually 24 or 30 frames per second to create an illusion of motion) and comics juxtaposes the images spatially. Watching film is mostly a passive activity while reading books and comics involves the imagination as an active participant in the process. As the mind travels from one panel to the next, it forms the sequence of the narrative. That action is why superheroes and science fiction genres perform so well as comics. The mind is actively engaged in the exciting story that is not just described, but shown. Comics and (traditional) graphic design are so similar in that they both juxtapose images and text in print to communicate ideas – it’s only the visual form that is different. Film and animation are similar: same technique, different forms. Scott McCloud very eloquently deconstructs comics in comic book form with Understanding Comics, which I can recommend to anyone who is struggling with trying to, well, understand comics.

As far as my recommendations go, I would agree that Craig Thompson’s Blankets is one of the finest in the genre. Also, Frank Miller / Klaus Janson / Lynn Varley’s The Dark Knight Returns is seminal with Alan Moore / Dave Gibbon’s The Watchmen. Grant Morrison / Frank Quitely’s run on X-Men is amazing. Warren Ellis / Darick Robertson’s Transmetropolitan is hilarious, gorgeous, and biting in its social critique. Sandman of course… Tony Millionaire, Jim Woodring, and Chris Ware have to make the list. The Maxx. Mmmm…. :^)

Stefan JonesNov 21, 2004 at 9:48PM

Oh … here we are in a discussion of comix and I forget to plug Electric Sheep:


These are web comics. Some aren’t “pure” in that they incorporate Flash. But we’re talking insane brilliance here.

“The Spiders” is an alternate-history Afghan War story … how it might have run if Gore won the election.

“Apocamon” is the Book of Revelations in Classics Comics form, with Pokemon style art.

“Thanksgiving Special” is a nicely topical comedy about genetically engineered turkeys.

“The Guy I Almost Was” and “Terrors of the Night” are autobiographical stories, wonderfully painful and frank.

kateNov 21, 2004 at 10:54PM

This may have been addressed already — I’m in a hurry and just did a quick scan after reading this:

“I see your point, but books have been around for several hundred years while comics — especially comics that are as richly done as the numerous examples mentioned here — are still a fairly new form of media. Most people aren’t missing much about books at this point because we’ve all grown up with them, but for someone who grew up at a time when comics were considered kids’ stuff, I’m wondering what’s compelling about the comics form as opposed to, say, the movie form or the book form for storytelling.” (JK)

Anyway, this probably goes without saying (or has been said, only I missed it in my previously mentioned scan), but… pictures have, um, been around for far longer than um, words. It’s funny that you forgot that. :)

And while I’m not going to get into the critique re: graphic novels or comics vs. print books, I will point out that contemporary humans are probably drawn to the utilization and enjoyment of pictographs for the same reasons our prehistoric ancestors were.

We think of graphic novels as a “new” genre because we’ve gotten so used to using words as symbols of what we are thinking. We’re spoiled by words, because (among other things) words, in many cases, can convey subtleties that can be interpreted clearly by many, especially since we’ve learned to associate words with “grownup” communication, and pictures with “childhood.” And therefore don’t think to try to convey such subtleties in picture form. As (I smile, pointing this out), say, Vermeer did… or the Sudova Vyshnian iconographers… or almost any artist plying his or her tools before the advent of photography…

(I have so much to say on this subject that I have to deliberately curb myself, or I will, sadly and greedily, eat up all the remaining space allowed in this comment section.)

Pictures can actually convey subtleties just as well as words can, but we’ve lost the language skills. We use pictures to communicate with each other the way people who speak Spanish badly try to strike up a conversation with a native in a cafe in Barcelona. We get by, but not as well as we used to. Even just a couple hundred years ago we were better at communicating through pictures than we are now.

The only two fields of pictorial communication (and, really, is there any other kind of picture?) that might be considered exceptions are advertising — where people study very closely, and carefully, the meanings of pictures, and what they communicate. And…

GRAPHIC NOVELS. Graphic novels, as a genre (and truth to tell, I don’t know much about them, except the few I’ve seen and liked [Maus, Sandman, etc.] — the ones mostly pressed on me by friends who know what I like) are stories told by grownups, using pictures. And (you guys know this is true), the more of them you look at, the better you are at interpreting the meanings of the pictures. The symbolism, meanings of colors, composition and line, etc. The iconographies. Very much like I imagined we were able to do in ancient Egypt, and further back, in the caves of France. &cetera.

The attraction, I think, is that pictures are the oldest language. I mean, other than, I guess grunts. But we like grunts, too. (Grunts are used frequently in rock & roll, and by Billie Holliday. Not to mention Britney Spears.)

Just because they are “simple” does not make them unsophisticated. Nor does a simple thing mean it can’t convey a subtle idea.

We can barely remember stuff like the past tense of “wreak” is “wrought,” and not “wreaked”; how can we be expected to racially remember the fact that we originally talked to each other in grunts and pictures?

But now that I’ve reminded you, I’m sure you’ll see it’s obvious. Right?

Dudes, I’ve got to go. The Grinch is totally coming on TV RIGHT NOW.

Joel M.Nov 22, 2004 at 7:30AM

People like relating to other people, fictional or not, and in that regard comics resemble all other story-telling mediums. I started reading comics as a kid and though the years found a few gems that I still reread on occasion. Falling in love with a work early helps get a person receptive to a medium, comfortable with it, or even activity seeking out a recreation of the previous, fun experience.

Funtime BenNov 22, 2004 at 9:23AM

I acctually read this book becuase you had mentioned it and just assumed I’d missed the discussion about it. I thought this book was very interesting, although I wasn’t bowled away by much of it. I did find the Chris Ware, Richard McGuire, Ben Katchor pieces to be really inspiring.

I guess reading this book sort of enlarged my view of comic book art, although I am still a little reluctant to accept graphic novels into my life.

JJNov 22, 2004 at 9:44AM

Jason you should try making a mini-comic.
You know I often wondered about how many people who have made the
Spider-Man movies so popular have actually read the comic book.

barnesNov 22, 2004 at 10:11AM

I’ve always felt that comics have been about cheating. I’m mindful that it’s never been a fair appraisal, but it’s a feeling I haven’t been able to shake. I appreciate good design and have enjoyed thumbing through comics/graphic novels, but I don’t think that any story has been more completely told by words + pictures, as opposed to just words. It seems to me that the images do so much heavy lifting, with regard to explaining the universe, that the reader can get away with shirking their responsibilities as a participant in the act of communication.

So, on the one hand, the comic writer can provide less of a story because the visuals make it seem like the environment has been established, and the readers can get away with not having to work to figure out what’s going on.

jkottkeNov 22, 2004 at 10:28AM

Anyway, this probably goes without saying (or has been said, only I missed it in my previously mentioned scan), but… pictures have, um, been around for far longer than um, words. It’s funny that you forgot that. :)

Sure, but we’re not talking about pictures here…we’re talking about comics. Words are not books, grunts are not monologue, a ringing bell isn’t music, and the Lascaux cave paintings are not comics. Illustrated books (like Dr. Seuss for instance) aren’t even comics. And comics usually aren’t just pictures…it’s words *and* pictures and in a lot of instances, comics are more closely related to the narrative-driven structure of written stories than to painting, photography, illustration, or even directions for assembling Ikea furniture.

jkottkeNov 22, 2004 at 10:37AM

I appreciate good design and have enjoyed thumbing through comics/graphic novels, but I don’t think that any story has been more completely told by words + pictures, as opposed to just words. It seems to me that the images do so much heavy lifting, with regard to explaining the universe, that the reader can get away with shirking their responsibilities as a participant in the act of communication.

Do you feel the same way about movies? Are the moving pictures and sound in movies more of a crutch than the pictures in comics?

Also, if you’re interested, check out this book from Monographics about Chris Ware’s work…there’s a lot more going on with his comics than just using images to cheat to the end of the story.

barnesNov 22, 2004 at 11:36AM

Do I feel the same way about movies? If I have to compare the written word to imagery, absolutely. But they can both be negatively characterized when compared to each other. Visual imagery is cheating when compared to words. Words are cheating if the intent is to convey visual images. I’m not suggesting that paintings are inferior to prose, but whether the use of one style of communication is dependent upon another style in order to make it work (or make it complete).

As I said, it’s unfair to judge comics in this way (and it’s really just a gut-feeling of mine) but I think that it’s akin to people spending inordinate amounts of time reading the little tags next to a piece of art looking for a “name” or an explanation of what they should be interpreting based on the art itself.

The combination of words + images in comics are using a shortcut to convey a narrative that could be told more completely with one or the other medium. Similar shortcuts used in prose (—“telling” instead of “showing”) are hallmarks of bad writing. Film has similar shortcuts (—narratives a la “Blade Runner” or gauzy flashbacks) that are recognized as being ham-fisted.

I would offer that comics make themselves impervious to criticism, aside from questions of subject-matter, by not committing to either the written narrative or visual style. I mean, is there such thing as a bad comic?

jkottkeNov 22, 2004 at 11:46AM

Somewhat related to our discussion here is Jonathan Franzen’s article on Charles Schultz and Peanuts for this week’s New Yorker.

Eric BostromNov 22, 2004 at 11:56AM

They are quirky and well worth it.
blankets by craig was v. touching and jimmy corrigan: tskoe made me want to quit drawing altogether. i still prefer to read regular books, but gems come along that make graphic novels really sing, at times.

Scott M.Nov 22, 2004 at 12:09PM

I’m sure this has been echoed above, but i don’t necessarily favor one medium over another — if it’s a good story, I can dig it. As you mention, Jason, the comic book is a relatively new medium and I think just starting to pull itself up by its bootstraps to tell some good stories. So, I’m not sure you’re missing too much; there are certainly some gems out there, but by and large the medium is still in its infancy. As more and more artists find that comics suits their artistic vision, we’ll see the art form mature. The US unfortunately is behind the curve a bit compared to Asia and Europe in accepting the form as a anything other than adolescent superhero comics, but with people like Ware on the forefront, it’s changing.

kateNov 22, 2004 at 1:53PM

“Sure, but we’re not talking about pictures here…we’re talking about comics. Words are not books, grunts are not monologue, a ringing bell isn’t music, and the Lascaux cave paintings are not comics.”

I gotta disagree. Or, to be more specific, point out that your comment, above, is a subjective one. As are all comments with regard to appreciation/interpretation of the arts, or any genre thereof.

If you’re saying a word is to a book like a picture is to a comic, then what about all the one-frame comics? I think it’s infinitely more possible to tell a story using a single picture than it is to tell a story using a single word.

And I’m quite sure that John Cage would disagree with you about a “ringing bell” not being “music.”

And finally, yes: the Lascaux cave paintings ARE comics. If comics are meant to tell others about things we see, and how we feel about the things we see, and what the things we see are doing while we are watching them.

As I said, I’m not specifically commenting on, or critiquing, examples of the graphic novel and/or comic genre(s) here — I’m only responding to JK’s post about pictures being a “new” means of communicating a narrative.

Another example: ideograms. Many Asians are still using written languages that are not based (as are many of our Western languages) on speech, but on pictures developed thousands of years ago. It’s not too altogether farfetched to say that any Japanese or Chinese (for example) novel is, in fact, a graphic novel, since it consists entirely of ideograms, or “pictures.”

An interesting article on exactly the topic of this discussion can be found here, at the Penn State website: http://www.psu.edu/dept/inart10_110/inart10/cmbk9pmgn.html, The Rise of the Post-Modern Graphic Novel.

And finally: “a grunt is not a monologue.” An example (of many) that refutes this that pops into my head without too much effort can be found in John Irving’s The World According to Garp, Chapter 1 (“Boston Mercy”), toward the end, around the paragraph starting with the sentence “Given the evidence, the shadows, and the white needles in the x-rays…”. There, you can read about a man who uses one word only to communicate everything in his, albeit limited, perception, but also how that word deteriorates into what can only be defined as a “grunt,” yet is still understood by his main audience.

maxNov 22, 2004 at 2:58PM

In the case of Ware, Thompson, Spiegelman, or Clowes (not to mention many others), you get a singular artistic vision, which most times you can’t get in movies. Sequential storytelling has been around for ages; look at the Bayeux tapestry, or even hieroglyphics. Comics are an expansion on the idea. All language is based on iconography, letterforms being the most extreme and iconographic, and on the other end, we have pictures in panels. Especially in Ware’s work, the pictures do the heavy lifting of telling the story; many of his panels have no dialogue or captions at all.

However, none of this is what you are asking for, nor is it why I enjoy comics.

I connected with comics in a hospital visit when I was young, and I’ve been head-over-heels with the art form ever since. I get so excited to get new comics on Wednesday that I tremble a bit walking into the store. It’s an escape, an excuse to engage my brain in something a little more challenging than watching the same trite Hollywood movie over and over again (don’t even get me started on sitcoms). Probably through adolescence, the love was more about control and power issues (hello, superheroes), and through college it was identity (hello, indy auto-bio comics), and now, it is anything I can get my hands on. Genre, auto-bio, kids, literary, non-fiction - whatever. I’ll read it.

You can tell a story in a poem, verbally, as a novel or short story, a film, a TV show, in a painting, or as a comic. I love and appreciate all of those vehicles when done successfully, but I especially enjoy comics. They just turn my crank.

PS - Other bonus with comics: creator accessibility. Chris Ware, Craig Thompson, James Kochalka, and a whole mess of others were extremely nice when I’ve met them and they love to talk about their work (with a degree of humility, especially in the case of Ware - he’s a genius and you get the feeling he blames himself for it - ha, cruel irony).

renaNov 22, 2004 at 5:55PM

hello, it was nice to meet you (briefly) last night. my two cents -

i was in a science fiction class in college, one that started with Frankenstein and ended with Watchman and Sandman. i remember the professor’s about comics: he said that there are things you can do in that medium that CANNOT be duplicated in book or movie form, and that’s why he thought they were so special. the more comics i read, the more i find that to be true. it’s not like comics are wannabes, they are their own kind of communication. besides the more obvious details like scale, framing, moving backward and forward in time, etc, you have to consider the decision to make a story into a comic instead of a book, or a film. for example, Persepolis is a story of a woman’s childhood in Iran during the revolution. this could easily have been a book, but the impact of the story is very great when it is told with simple black and white drawings - comics are supposedly for children but the story, about a girl, is not childlike at all. i think this format lends a lot of strength to her story.

anyway. i also like the way comics can lead your mind from place to place. this is not the same as spoon-feeding ideas, but i can’t describe it very well. i think comics are more like a confluence of sensations, like a radio play or even a smell-o-vision movie. i worked for a company that wanted to mist you with scents as you surfed the web. (yes, they folded promptly.) it was the stupidest idea but during the demo, when they brought up a fake page about pizza delivery and then you got a waft of pepperoni from their little device, by god if you didn’t want to go get a slice right then. it was a lovely little “aha!” moment, and i think that’s the best kind of feeling you can get when you read comics.

JoeNov 22, 2004 at 8:34PM

I’m like you. I don’t get comics. I didn’t even make it through Jimmy Corrigan…. I made it through the Maus books, but that may have been because I was working in a bookstore at the time and comics were perfect for sneaking a page in now and then.

American Spledor is a great film for comic lovers and those of us who don’t get comics alike. I thought it was a great piece as both drama and documentary.

Simon BoyleNov 22, 2004 at 9:34PM

What everybody else said.

Plus, Kyle Baker’s Why I Hate Saturn is a fantastic non-genre (and that includes “my depressing life in black and white”) comic.

samir bellilNov 22, 2004 at 10:05PM

you should open up comments for all your posts jason.

kateNov 23, 2004 at 3:07AM

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you should open up comments for all your posts jason.
While still in relative beta form, there is
a site where many of your comment needs might be addressed.  Especially
with regard to non-professional book criticism.  And this is exactly the
kind of crowd that needs to argue/discuss in a public forum.  The world
needs more crowds like this one here, at kottke.org.
Please visit (and this is NOT
my own site — this is not a shameless plug for myself.  It is a shameless
plug for someone else.  Who does not know I am plugging him.) href=”http://p078.ezboard.com/btosayyes7310”>To Say Yes.

kateNov 23, 2004 at 3:10AM

God that html sure turned out ugly. Good thing I’m already half-asleep, or I’d think I really posted that, with all those tags and bad breaks flopping out and over the waistband of my Lucky Yous.

PlanethalderNov 23, 2004 at 7:03AM

What I love about reading books is the images I create in my head. I’ve never enjoyed graphic novels or comics because the image-creating has been done for me. Planethalder.

PlanethalderNov 23, 2004 at 7:16AM

I also think that if comics/graphic novels were part of your childhood reading, they would remain so into adulthood. They weren’t part of my childhood and as an adult I’ve tried to give them a chance (eg the Akira and Sandman series), but to no avail. Planethalder.

HNov 23, 2004 at 8:42AM

There’s nothing to get. If you’ve tried reading Akira/Sandman/Maus/Cerebus and still don’t like comics then comics are simply not your cup of tea. But please stop trying to force all these media into simplistic hierarchies.
Books are not inherently better than Film, or vice-versa.
Comics are not inherently better than Books, or vice-versa.
Images are not inherently better than Words, or vice-versa.

A good Book is always better than a bad Film.
A good Comic is always better than a bad Book.

These are all different media with fundamentally different syntactic structures, and therefore with different storytelling capabilities. A good instance of any of these is one which ably exploits the syntax to tell a story or convey an idea. Even better is when the syntax is undermined…

TomNov 23, 2004 at 9:17AM

Literature, especially when taught in academia, is presented as a medium for communicating ideas.

Comics can be used to present ideas also, but what it excels at is communicating experience.

Take a look at the King Cat minicomic insert to McSweeny’s, by John Porcellino. John P. works almost entirely in the experience realm. It’s autobiography, but he’s not just trying to tell you what happened, he wants you to experience it — a set of feelings, emotions and sensations.

If you can connect with the cartoonist, this is all really good stuff. However, it’s also pretty fuzzy, and hard to talk about, because it’s all stuff that can’t be expressed in words. If you’re a lit critic, and you’re looking for a set of ideas to analyze, you’re going to be left scratching your head.

samNov 23, 2004 at 9:46AM

I can’t believe we’ve had an entire thread without mentioning Japanese comics *once*, except for multiple Akira references and a mention of the film Spirited Away, which AFAIK wasn’t based on a comic…

I think there are reasons why comics can often be quite poor.

One reason is the target market: many comics are aimed at teenage boys. The corresponding proportion of gratuitous violence, pointless nudity, etc. doesn’t make for quality.

Another reason may be that many mass-market comics are written and drawn by different people. Sure, this opens up some new opportunities (I like Sandman too, and I don’t suppose Neil Gaiman can draw, so without that model it might not have been made) but removing the single-author model that books follow gives an opportunity, in the more corporate work, for committees to stick their oar in a little deeper. After all, they can always change the artist (if the writer is well-known) or the writer (if the artist is well-known).

Some comics don’t suffer from either of these problems, such as Maus - which by the way I think is overrated, but is still certainly worth reading. Raymond Briggs’s books (e.g. the biography he wrote, forget the name) also fall into the ‘people who don’t read comics read these’ category.

I went through a phase of reading US comic collections when I was younger - whatever the library had - but apart from Sandman and Elfquest (this latter not for everyone) none of it really stuck with me. Watchmen was okay. Maus was good, a harrowing story well-told, but not some kind of epiphany. The Batman stuff that everyone liked was also in the ‘well, ok’ category.

Nowadays apart from webcomics, of which I read many, I only read Japanese comics. I also only read Japanese comics aimed at teenage girls. :) (I also have some interest in one that is aimed at adult males, but for technical reasons uninteresting to all but language geeks, these are more difficult to read, so I’m leaving them for later.)

Apart from an interest in the language and the art (which, to my eyes, is nicer-looking than most US comics), my main reason for this addiction is the quality of writing. I’m not saying it is going to stun a literary snob, and there’s still a hell of a lot of crap produced, but some Japanese comics really are very well-written IMO.

(Of the stuff I read which is also available in the US, I’d recommend Yumi Tamura’s “Chicago” - a strange and beautifully violent 2 volume military-ish story which ends kind of abruptly; Miki Aihara’s “Hot Gimmick” - an over-the-top teen soap opera, 9 volumes and counting; and Setona Mizushiro’s ‘X-Day’ , 2 volumes of teen - and adult - chatroom angst in a plan to blow up a school. There’s no real reason you, or anyone reading this, should like the same things I do… but at least these suggestions will probably have been heard less often than ‘Akira’. ;)


SharonNov 23, 2004 at 9:55AM

barnes said:
The combination of words + images in comics are using a shortcut to convey a narrative that could be told more completely with one or the other medium.

This here, actually, is what gets me excited about comics. An idea can be conveyed so compactly that it becomes visceral and affects me without engaging my noisy, rationalizing, narrating left hemisphere.

I will never forget how I felt when I met the Dream King in Sandman: The Dream Hunters. (Admittedly, this book is print and paintings, but it is unquestionably meant to be a picture book.) The text builds to the moment, and then you turn the page… and open a double-page spread that folds out, wordless, resplendent with amazing color and majesty. It makes my vision cloud up with tears, and it makes me want to be there—and yet, it might be somewhat terrifying to be there.

Look how much chatter I had to go through there, and I didn’t even succeed in conveying what makes it amazing. However, if you were to simply flip open to that section of the book, it still wouldn’t have that affect on you. Only by building to it, questing for it, does it become this moving revelation.

And that’s just one example.

Jason, you get excited about the way Tufte presents information. There’s something similar going on in good comics.

SharonNov 23, 2004 at 10:01AM

Chris is on the same wavelength as me, and I’m on the same wavelength as Tom, who posted while I was catching up. I’m fitting in in a discussion of comics as art—my husband would be so proud of his little geek. ^_^

Bard EdlundNov 23, 2004 at 11:49AM

Jason, you should check out the norwegian cartoonist Jason. no, seriously. that’s his name. go to fantagraphics.com and order the book called “Sshhhh!” or “Hey, Wait…” I will be SHOCKED if you don’t like it.

i am also not a big comics fan, but Jason creates an incredible mood, a kind of bittersweet melancholy — all with just images, no (or very few) words. It’s poetry.

hoagieNov 23, 2004 at 4:52PM

jason, you asked at the top of the thread, “what am i missing here?” well, that depends on what comics you’ve read so far. i think that the small amount of theorizing done on this thread is essentially pointless - either you like the work or you don’t. some folks above have made some good recommendations. you might also want to look at (if you haven’t already): charles burns’ black hole, seth’s it’s a good life, and joe matt’s books, esp. the last three - he’s the guy who has the piece in mcsweeney’s about needing a new cum-rag, i think; matt is a really great cartoonist, skilled, daring and smart. jason lute’s current book, berlin, is just spectacular. howard cruse did a book in the mid-90s called stuck rubber baby that i thought was easily as good as maus - it’s got historical depth and scope, and a lot of genuine emotion - it’s *so* good.

kateNov 23, 2004 at 6:26PM

Hoagie: Why is theorizing pointless? Jason did also ask, “Why do you enjoy comics and/or graphic novels?” which of course led to people answering that question, and attempting to explain why they feel the way they do. If theorizing about lit or art appreciation were pointless, what would be the fun of talking about it? We’d all be going around just saying, “It sucks.” or “It’s great.” but not ever expounding.

I think the expounding is part of what attracts people to a genre, or a specific example of a genre, or whatever. If someone whose opinion I respect and whose sensibilities I admire, and maybe even share, tells me about a book or an album or a painting or a dish that I didn’t know about before, I’m going to want to know why he/she likes it so much. It’s partly selfish in a practical sense (getting others to do my screening for me) and partly entertaining (like an appetizer, or foreplay — it’s fun for me to experience vicariously someone’s affection for and enjoyment of something, before I proceed directly to my own enjoyment of the article in question.

Talking about this stuff is FUN. Especially if it doesn’t get vitriolic or pose-y, as has yet to happen here, in this discussion. That I can tell.

Paul JonesNov 26, 2004 at 9:13PM

Not to retread this thread, but I waited to reply til I had read all of the McSweeney’s in question. The book is about a certain kind of comic. Not superheroes or comic that owe much to superheroes except as a way to tell stories about disappointments, enlightenments, betrayals, and frankly neo-existential situations. In short, it’s a book about Chris Ware, his influences, his forebearers, his cosmos of co-travelers and to some extent (and I can’t tell who exactly fits in this category) his followers in art.
If you are interested in that world, visually, historically, naratively and emotionally, then this book is for you. It is not Jimmy Corrigan but the DNA from which JC sprung and about the branches of his family trees, his cousins in art.
Don’t expect X-Man, Watchman, Incredibles etc. Don’t expect Archie except in negative ironic twists. The same for Casper and Donald Duck.
This is not so much a manifesto for a kind of comic/graphic story-telling — yes a genre emerging and showing itself as something serious — as a map of explanations of why this genre has already taken off. Not explications, but examples and tales that build the larger story.
Like it or not — here it is!

Nikole JolieNov 29, 2004 at 1:50PM

Thanks for the great idea! :)

tellyDec 03, 2004 at 4:55PM

I only really got into graphic novels rather recently — coincidentally, because of McSweeney’s #13 — and now I am really, really into them.

To me the appeal is all in the concise storytelling. It often seems like “real” novelists get caught up in the number of pages due by their deadlines, and become unable to keep to the point. Graphic novels, by contrast, are refreshingly boiled-down: flowery descriptive language becomes rather unnecessary when there’s detailed drawings; paragraph after endless paragraph of really ‘deep’ psychological insight can quite often be replaced quite effectively by a couple of raised eyebrows (in this way the imagination level — i.e. the “i’d rather imagine what the characters are like” impulse — balances out). To me, graphic novels are the more legitimate medium because there’s not all that bullshit to wade through. I like that.

I currently list among my favourite authors OF ALL TIME Jeffrey Brown, Michel Rabagliati and Marjane Satrapi. A year ago I’d never even heard of them.

ethyleneDec 05, 2004 at 7:26AM

odd the few things that no one has mentioned yet—
As someone involved and enamored of comics who has friends with definite biases, being familiar and open to the medium is a big issue. One person I know in particular is prone to discount sci fi, animation, a lot of things right off the bat, but when something is brought to her attention, she can and often does appreciate it (even if only in knowing what the rest of us may be on about) as was the case with Beautiful Stories for Ugly Children which was more like children’s books with text accompanying pictures.
In the late 80’s to 90’s when the medium was growing, evolving, and many had the disposible dosh, the idea of comics as “serious work” really got its foothold (and financial interest) to spawn the “graphic novel.” There was lots to buy, old, new, and repackaged, and people who would buy them, as they finally seeped into the rest of “culture.”
For someone like me who first got into comics when barely in the double digits, my first thought about comics was: and the story keeps going?
a book without an ending to worry about closing in on. wow
Understanding the conventions of comics made it even more interesting when one could see them being broken open and reinterpreted, not unlike realizing the revolutionary stance of stripped down punk or [insert comparable medium moment here]: depending on how much you know and in what order you got to know it changes your perception of it, entirely.
There are some books, films, etc. you can’t appreciate once you’ve seen its latter day disciples. These kids today who don’t know anything is a cover or a remake—
—but without further digression thataway, there are things expressed in comics that don’t come across in any other medium. Without even going into how movie storyboarding is basically comics, even in film, a still moment isn’t just a still moment: there is a set time and sound, even the lack of it is a thing. A single page or frame of a comic with or without words to affect the image can not be in any other way created. A single image on its own, photo, painting, etc. is not necessarily in a context, and I think almost everyone has been stung by a bad voice over. Whether it’s a lack of words or guided by them for tone, irony, narration—
Even with some things defined, you can add, infer, contextualize, personalize far more than with something calling attention to sensors other than your eyes.
And then there is that most personal and intimate thing of being able to take it nearly anywhere at any time to create your own most conducive enviroment to enjoy it in, whether it is waiting for someone to show up or curled up in your bed. You are not forced to sit in a seat or in front of anything or anyone, fix the audio, blah blah— and that tangible in-your-hands when-you-want intangible moment is then precious just because it is ephemeral, and you will never see it for the first time ever again.
Now to step down from any supposed haloed moment: sometimes, especially after a day of reading, I wanna story, and sometimes the best comics of the most effort are just that effortless to absorb. It can be so accessible that you’ve read it without thinking, most offensively exampled in the “Family Circus” (which i had happily avoided until just before the election, I still shudder at the thought)—
—so given the chance you may find something that speaks to you, if you can give it the chance.
So, I took this chance to speak.
Most common arts are still struggling with conventions people struggled to set half a century or more ago. Most progress in them is still being contested by people no matter its age and history. Don’t expect consensus or even the want to know. In a world full of things waiting to be explored, maybe it’s never going to mean as much to you as the next novelty feature in aerosol spray food. I hear bizarre and wonderful things going on there for people with the interest and money.
now if only i had the money to catch up on a few years of great comics—

ethyleneDec 05, 2004 at 8:08AM

while i did rehash some of the things other people did note and not go into all the omissions, i just wanted to hit those few points and also say: there ain’t nothing you can tear apart and analyze like a good comic. catch little jokes and details you missed, realize attentions paid and lacking here and there, and being as a lot of these people are still alive, you’ve got lots of interesting backstory. I never got to read the last few issues of From Hell but there is barely a resemblence of ten years work in that movie (so I’m still not sure how it ends). Still, its illustrator, Eddie Campbell spills just some of the ups, downs, and whoopsadaisies of “back in the day” in his own work and others have tales to tell, even from before the movies started buying them up (and not making them).
I wonder if anyone still owns the film rights to A Velvet Glove—

ethyleneDec 05, 2004 at 8:09AM

oops, i got slashed and me tag didn’t, sheesh

Lee DaleDec 09, 2004 at 6:49PM

I’m surprised to not see it here, but I would argue that Kabuki, Metamorphosis, is the zenith of comics storytelling.

I have never seen a better use of the particular and complete facets of any medium to convey meaning and emotion. (i.e. with film, using the score, cinematography, actors, location, etc. - all aspects of the medium) With the possible exceptions of texture and size, every aspect of the printed page was explored and affected in order to relate the story.

If you don’t know what to get, try it:

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.