Thursday, 14 April 2011

"Ugly, unaesthetic and repulsive"

The Times Literary Supplement in 1953 took a very dim view of comics. At the London Book Fair on Monday, Paul Gravett read out the full TLS article from which that quote comes, the thrust of the article being that the medium of comics had been given long enough to prove itself and, having failed to produce a masterwork, should be put down. (The same argument applied in Sparta to the boys who came last in cross-country - very definitely a view that still prevailed at my school in the early '70s.)

The panel were discussing "Graphic novels as literature" and included, among others, Kevin O'Neill and John Harris Dunning, author of Salem Brownstone. It directly addressed the high art vs low art question we've been pondering on this blog of late. Some of the "graphic novels" shown were very high art indeed, so high that you'd need to pack an oxygen bottle if you're not a creature of pure intellect such as many of the traditional book publishers seem to be targeting. GN is in inverted commas there because, as Kevin O'Neill pointed out, many comics creators are uncomfortable with the term: "It's like people using the word 'erotica' to disguise the fact that they're really interested in porn."

John Dunning picked up on that too, bemoaning the snobbish, high-minded attitude of publishers who are disdainful of "comics" but will publish "graphic novels" as long as they're not too brightly colored and deal with grown-up issues like cancer, unemployment or racism. Luckily some great graphic novel creators slip under the wire even so - Adrian Tomine, Daniel Clowes, Alison Bechdel, Posy Simmonds - but it was impossible not to pick up from the publishers a sense that the smart, ironic tone of these books meant they could turn up at cocktail parties and not have to hide behind the pot plants. It's a fair bet they're not going to be publishing Rex Mundi or The Walking Dead anytime soon. I don't think they'd care much for Love & Rockets either, come to that.

After a spirited rant that drew a discreet British murmur of approval from the front rows, Dunning went on to talk about the benefits of having a sophisticated high end to the comics/GN market. It has freed up forms, encouraging comics at all levels to experiment with pages without text, for example. "To have impact, comics need to be longer," he said, pointing out that the traditional comic book is just a short story. Manga stories often run to several hundred pages and it's necessary to move towards at least the same kind of length as a movie before people will start to take comics seriously. You need that space if you're going to properly explore a theme. As Leo and I are creating an 800+ page epic that was originally serialized in 5-page minisodes, that was a particularly timely reminder to us not to neglect the tropes of memory, prejudice, identity, thought v feeling, etc, that form the background weave of Mirabilis. It can be easy to forget that when you just have to get a character through a door and across a room.

We should be glad that traditional British publishers are willing to entertain comics of any sort, even if their inherent distaste for the medium inclines them towards self-consciously respectable forms (in the same way that the late and utterly unlamented UK Film Council only backed the worthiest cinema projects) because it is nonetheless a foot in the door of bookstores. I went into Waterstones on Oxford Street and found a wall of personal comics picks individually reviewed by the store manager, with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen in all its lairy glory right there alongside Maus and Palestine. There's room for comics and graphic novels, low and high forms, even for beauty and ugliness. A thriving art encompasses them all.

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