“Come say hello to me at SPX! Wear the SF Lapel Pin Badge if you’re a scientist fighter, S.F. super fan, or a sequential-floppies semi-‘ficionado. Table K4, middle of the room, right across the aisle from Koyama Press.”—RCS, SPX 2014
Is there an attitude of dismissiveness towards literary comics in certain critical circles? Towards comics that tackle literary themes, mimic novelistic structures and storytelling, or indulge in very literary the-art-and-the-artist navel-gazing? I've heard and read people suggest that these comics try too hard for respectability, that they're primarily to be read by people who don't like comics. Some of this might be reading too much into superficial online comments. I'm unsure. Thoughts?
Sure, absolutely. But then, each of those circles probably has a somewhat different idea of what ‘literary’ comics are. It used to be simply comics with aspirations beyond exercising the qualities of genre - which replicated, I think, that quintessential latter-half-of-the-20th-century obsession with qualifying the division between High and Low art. And even then, there were disagreements over whether novelistic comics which hewed to generic strictures were correctly literary: always, the texture was a mix of intent, form and circumstance.
Harvey Pekar, for example, took great inspiration from realist fiction, but autobiographical comics both are and aren’t considered literary. Up until most of the way through the ’00s, they were sort of considered (by people who disliked them) as a dominant species of indie comics, and indicative of the inability of indie comics to succeed anywhere beyond their homogenous, self-centered cloister. Then Fun Home happened, and Persepolis happened, and now the knock is that these comics appeal too much in the wrong (i.e. boring) direction.
Similarly, as the ’00s stretched on, and venues like Kramers Ergot and publishers like PictureBox gained momentum, the values of small press comics arguably became less literary or confessional than visual, collapsing distinctions between reproduced comics and gallery art. (There were, obviously, many antecedents, ranging from RAW to Fort Thunder, but this is where the dialogue really seemed to shift.) In that light, to be ‘literary,’ arguably, was to gesture toward traditional narrative structure - but then, Kramers always had a number of very straightforward stories in it; Chris Ware was a contributor, and he’s frankly as prone to start talking about comics as musical composition as anything else in a book.
I suppose what I’m saying is that it’s quite easy to brandish the literary as a signal of what’s wrong in comics, because it casts a very broad beam. I don’t like many of the comics I see coming out of the generalist book publishers, because I don’t think a lot of them are especially interesting or adept as comics, but this is as much the result of the expectations of marketing to a certain demographic as it is a symptom of literary pursuit.
“Look, Kamala: When you throw a rock into the water, it will speed on the fastest course to the bottom of the water. This is how it is when Siddhartha has a goal, a resolution. Siddhartha does nothing, he waits, he thinks, he fasts, but he passes through the things of the world like a rock through water, without doing anything, without stirring; he is drawn, he lets himself fall. His goal attracts him, because he doesn’t let anything enter his soul which might oppose the goal. This is what Siddhartha has learned among the Samanas. This is what fools call magic and of which they think it would be effected by means of the daemons. Nothing is effected by daemons, there are no daemons. Everyone can perform magic, everyone can reach his goals, if he is able to think, if he is able to wait, if he is able to fast.”—Wisdom from Siddhartha.
Life has loveliness to sell,
All beautiful and splendid things,
Blue waves whitened on a cliff,
Soaring fire that sways and sings,
And children’s faces looking up
Holding wonder like a cup.
Life has loveliness to sell,
Music like a curve of gold,
Scent of pine trees in the rain,
Eyes that love you, arms that hold,
And for your spirit’s still delight,
Holy thoughts that star the night.
Spend all you have for loveliness,
Buy it and never count the cost;
For one white singing hour of peace
Count many a year of strife well lost,
And for a breath of ecstasy
Give all you have been, or could be.
“At times my heart cries out with longing to see all these things. If I can get so much pleasure from mere touch, how much more beauty must be revealed by sight. Yet, those who have eyes apparently see little. The panorama of color and action which fills the world is taken for granted. It is human, perhaps, to appreciate little that which we have and to long for that which we have not, but it is a great pity that in the world of light the gift of sight is used only as a mere convenience rather than as a means of adding fullness to life.”—Hellen Keller wrote this moving essay, “Three Days to See,” in 1933. If you have the time, please read it from start to finish! It’s impossible for me to imagine what she is imagining. It’s a shame? a tragedy? natural? that I cannot appreciate the many blessings and opportunities for joy I take for granted every day.
“I see those people who say things like “I just want to be entertained”, and that’s why they don’t read stuff that’s bleak or realistic or autobio or whatever — yeah, I think it’s stupid too. But I think it’s stupid because I’m imagining the rest of that person’s life, I’m making the assumption that they don’t do anything that’s hard or awful or bleak or unsettling, and that they’re just a dumb joker at work all day and they come home and read dumb joker shit all night, unless CSI Miami is on. But what do I know? Maybe the people who don’t want to read auto bio comics, who don’t want to read depressing Tatsumi stories, maybe they just have a really hard job and they want a release on their downtime. Of course — Ganges isn’t a complicated comic to read, it’s probably a complicated comic to make — but yeah, if you’re the kind of person who gets off on something that’s action-y or genre-y, then I can see why you’d say “this is about a dude who drank too much coffee and is thinking about stuff? No thanks!””—Tucker Stone, in his interview with Tom Spurgeon in 2010 about Kevin Huizenga’s Ganges series.