High and Low

clowes_murder.jpgOver on the TCJ message board, Noah Berlatsky replies to my criticism:

“Hi Matthias. You raised some interesting points in your review. For myself, though, when I was six or seven I thought Peanuts was hysterically, fall-down-on-the-floor funny. Still do, for that matter.

I didn’t talk more about Chris Ware in the Schulz essay in part because, at the time, I’d just written a piece sneering at him. It was a review of the Comix Chicago issue from a couple of years back, and it used to be on the now-defunct Bridge magazine website. Anyway, I thought I’d reprint it as well, since there seems to be some interest. It’s now on my blog here:

http://eatenbyducks.blogspot.com/2007/03/boredom-on-infinite-earths.html

I’m not quite as high on Alan Moore as I was when I wrote this. I still think he’s pretty great, though.

And finally, in totally trivial and pointless quibbling, the Schulz essay was the first thing I wrote for the Journal, but it was actually published second. (It was in #265; the Spiegelman review was in #264.)”

Thanks for the reply, Noah, and excuse me for responding here — after a couple of years of running a message board, I’ve grown slightly allergic to them. Anyway, I enjoyed your review of Comix Chicago much of which I agree with. I see that you also regard Chris Ware as a great writer, and acknowledge his formal innovations and graphic acumen, but quickly grow tired of his whining about the hardships of his life – whining that I agree sometimes extends a little too far into his more “serious” work, permeating it with what seems like an almost compulsive malaise that undermines its moments of genuine, and touching, emotional consequence. (I also wholly agree that Pos Plug One is a wonderful writer – his verse on “I Am I Be” is still a high watermark of rap lyricism, and performance… oh, and I also like Moore a lot).

But then there is your analysis of the evolution of the comics medium over the past couple of decades:

“…the comics medium, after 60-odd years of over-muscled goombahs and talking cats, is finally ready to bore the pants off innumerable school-children. Dan Clowes, like John Updike, really understand the Souls of Women. Joe Sacco, like Susan Sontag, has visited Serbia. Sincere meaningfulness is in the air, progenitors are being slain, and lavish praise from Harold Bloom cannot be far behind.”

Much as this formulation makes me laugh – and it does – I think it is founded in disingenuous logic. You compare with literature and hail either idiosyncratic (Chesterton) or popular (London) writers as the true literary giants of the form, marginalized by all the boring “high-art” writers of the 20th Century. Much as I agree that the novel has seen better days, I do not necessarily see this as a result of its elevation into high art (which happened well before Chesterton and London), or its later status as the preeminent art form of the avant-garde. You bring up Joyce yourself: while idiosyncratic, creative and funny, I would hardly describe him as a popular writer – he is as elitist as it gets. But good.

Same with comics. Your reasoning sounds most of all like a smart, self-aware reiteration of the same old complaints we have been hearing from the cold warriors for years now: “comics is a trash medium, it’s not art and to think of it as such means killing it”. Whatever happened to the value of diversifying? What is wrong with comics also offering more “elitist” fare? The slow but undeniable asphyxiation of Western mainstream comics over the last decades cannot be blamed on the development of the medium in other, less populist directions, as you seem to be doing here – try mindless repetition of old tropes, pandering to an ageing audience, neglect of new readers, the advent of digital media, and general lack of ideas on the part of creators, editors and publishers.

Dismissing Maus or the work of Joe Sacco as “ambulance chasing” is disarmingly cheeky, but does gross injustice to works that in every sense take comics where they have never gone before, and at the same time are grippingly human and not at all difficult to access for the reader. Enjoying the sheer exuberance of creativity of Herriman, Kurtzman or Cole does not preclude appreciating Spiegelman’s portrayal of his damaged father mediated by deadpan mouseface, or the play of powerful, at times fatal emotion under the cool veneer of contemporary social interaction and pared-down, suggestive narration of Dan Clowes. I, for one, find imagining an American comics landscape that only consisted of Marvel, DC and whatever strips are in major syndication, or a European one that only produced sword-and-sorcery and soft porn, a pretty sad scenario. (Well, we would at least still have a lot of great manga to read!) While there is certainly a lot of mediocre work, as well as straight-up crap, being produced in “graphic novel” form these days, it is unquestionably in the more auteur-driven works that Western comics have been kept alive and fresh for at least the last decade and a half.

My point is that we should be happy that comics have diversified, that we now have an establishment of high art “boring” comics to go along with all the lowbrow funny ones of the past. My further point is that your high vs. low art dichotomy is still a straw man.

Image from Dan Clowes’ Ice Haven (2001).

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