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.
“When you throw a stone into the water, it falls quickly by the fastest route to the bottom of the pond. This is the way it is when Siddhartha has an aim, an intension. Siddhartha does nothing – he waits, he thinks, he fasts – but he passes through the things of the world like the stone through the water, without bestirring himself. He is drawn forward and he lets himself fall. His goal draws himself to it, for he lets nothing enter his mind that interferes with the goal. This is what Siddhartha learned from the shramanas. This is what fools call magic, thinking that it is brought about by demons. Nothing is brought about by demons; demons do not exist. Anyone can do magic, anyone can reach his goals if he can think, wait, and fast.”—Siddartha, by Herman Hesse
I'm on Todd McFarlane's side!! (and I think you are, too)
Or: What I Love About THAT Interview with McFarlane and Groth
Have you read (or better, listened to) this epic interview between Gary Groth and Todd McFarlane? (TEXT)(AUDIO) I love it! I always come back to it when I need a boost. McFarlane expresses a wonderful and inspiring attitude to me as an artist. I’ve heard that in 1992, this interview was sorta held up against him. Like, people thought Todd was dumb. Gary sounds more like he’s trying to score zingers than listen to him. But in the 20XX’s Todd really holds up, and here Gary doesn’t. I happen to think Gary is a genius, but we all have our blind spots.
Todd is a talented artist, he’s honest, and he’s self-aware. He’s passionate and opinionated. He knows what he’s talking about when he criticizes the industry (AND himself). It’s pretty clear that the MO in his work is to entertain as many readers as he can. And he was quite successful at that! I think that’s cool!
If you (and Gary) wish that Todd were a better artist and writer…Well, that’s on you and Gary! I mean, you and Gary should go out and make better books! (SPOILER: Gary did! Thank you Gary!!!) There’s no conflict here. However, Gary seems pretty aggressive in this interview, to a fault. Like, he misses a lot of wisdom.
So without further ado lemme just highlight a bunch of stuff which I LOVE from Todd (and some which I happen to hate from Gary). I think it’s worth sharing… and I think it’s really curious how it was received so differently in ‘92, but maybe some comics people a little older than me can speak to that. Here we go, great shit ahead!!!
At 4:30 (I’m referring to the audio link cuz it rules) Todd talks about how he pitched Image (i.e. self-publishing) to other artists. "Ditch your writer, you know? Grab control of the reins…" This is perfect advice for a cartoonist with a voice (otherwise known as an “artist”) in 2014. Duh! And Gary’s response is so… bad. "Did it ever occur to you that a lot of these artists might not know how to write?" Why the fuck should that stop anyone?
10:00 Todd explains his perception of his own relationship to writers. He’s not condemning anyone but himself. What a good attitude! "Unfortunately I’m not big enough of a man to have some fucking writer change my artwork…” When Gary asks him if he could work in a “genuine collaboration,” Todd admits: "That’s maybe a big flaw in my character, but no… I’m psychotic that way." Isn’t this a good way to acknowledge yourself? I think it’s fair enough!
Around the 15:00 mark Todd talks about marketing comics, too. Even when I was 12 years old, I could perceive that advertising and marketing for comics was dumb and weird. So I think Todd sounds pretty smart here, especially when he talks about the Home Alone movie.
Todd recounts how he didn’t conform well to the Marvel style. Starts around 19:30. “They thought that I didn’t want to draw like John Romita because I hated John Romita. Quite the opposite. I was not stupid enough to try and emulate John Romita because that’d be like me becoming a painter and trying to draw like Michelangelo or paint like Rockwell. I was not going to go down in history as a good-John-Romita-imitator.” Hell yeah! I think the lingo nowadays is “You be you,” or something, right? And by the way, if Todd were not a great artist then maybe this wouldn’t have worked out well for him. But he is, and it did:
21:20 “Thank the gods that the sales went up, because that’s the only thing that saved my ass during that whole fight… What happened was, I said, “I’m not gonna follow the status quo,” and now the status quo is some of the stuff that I laid down. It’s come back to haunt me. It’s flattering, but it’s also somewhat frustrating that I’ve killed the monster and reconstructed another one.
23:12 I didn’t get where Gary pulled this condescending question from, in response to that very self-aware characterization, but Todd’s answer is great:
Gary: ”Mmkay, so basically you were too much of a maverick for the system?”
Todd thinks about it and says, “A fuck? Yeah. Whatever. I heard all the names. I was very talented, I was creative, I was a trailblazer, and I was a fuck-face and an asshole. To me they’re all the same thing. I wear all those names with a badge of honor. It’s a lot better than being afraid or content.” (Hell yeah!)
Gary just seems to be mad that Todd isn’t on the same crusade as he is. Todd talks about his motivations as an artist/man/human, and I love it. He asks Todd what good it is to work independently of Marvel: "If the work isn’t better, then why is changing the system better?"
Todd: “See, now I’d disagree with that. If I’ve got my sanity back, and I’m still doing the same work but I’m 10 times happier, and I’m a better father and I’m a better husband and I’m a better friend to the neighbors, who cares if it looks the same? … Personally I’ll be happy. If I’m personally happy it should show up in the work. I’m not saying that that’s always necessary, but it should show up in the work. And personally, I’ll be a better husband and a better person, and that, ultimately, is 10 times more important than all the comic book stuff.”
A very good answer! This is essential. It’s not the only thing, but it’s a very important thing. Todd also gets into some economics of the car business, and you know what… I buy it! Gary doesn’t seem to favor the metaphor (I think it’s some kind of weird Marxist-flavored bias or something. There’s nothing wrong with that, except maybe he’s numb to Todd’s angle here. Which I can admit is not explicated with perfect rhetorical flourish. But… I dig it. I grok).
Around the 29 minute mark, Todd goes into what he sees as proof of the power of Image’s innovation. They sold millions of copies without all the PR people and lawyers and established IP that Marvel and DC are blessed/burdened with. Gary misses the point (because frankly he’s busy thinking of how to discredit Todd) and goes after him: “But you also needed to have worked at Marvel for several years! And worked on a popular character before you could sell a million copies of your own comic!” But IMO this isn’t about saying “Marvel is no good” or “We are inherently better than all of DC.” It’s about how Marvel and DC were blind to positive changes they could have made, and the Image guys did it themselves. Sorta like “standing on the shoulders of giants,” you know. I’m just summarizing here. Todd wouldn’t have made it where he is without Marvel, no doubt. But that doesn’t mean that he needed them to be a good artist or to accomplish great things. Just like Newton would have been a great scientist even if Descartes hadn’t been around. Gary sounds like he’s trying to trip Todd up… and you know I appreciate him making Todd get into this. If you’re “against” Todd, then you might be on Gary’s side with this line of inquiry. But fuck if I don’t swoon over lines like this:
34:09 ”How do I measure success? It ain’t the number of copies I sell, I guarantee ya. It’s got nothing to do with comic books, really…
"Let me tell you what Todd McFarlane is all about. I’ve got a wife that I love dearly, I’ve always loved, that I’ve been together with for 14 years. I got good friends and family, and a daughter that’s a miracle to me. My success - I’m a rich man in that I’ve got a very understanding, caring, beautiful wife; I’ve got good friends and family; and you know what, they could take all the fame from me and all the fortune from me. Just let me do comic books and sell 5,000 comic books just so I could eke out a living, and I would still do comic books, because I like comic books so much.
"The rest of it is a Western Civilization thing, so that when you do an interview, it’s a way of justifying why you do comic books."
Yes!! I love this. I’ll be honest: I choke up a little every time I hear it, although Gary seems unimpressed. He tries to do some “gotcha journalism” with it. Oh, but you said in a recent interview that you WANT to sell a lot of copies! You hack!! …Dude, what are you getting at? I think underlying this conflict between Gary and Todd is that Gary just wants to dismantle the whole comics system from the foundation, and Todd is comfortable innovating within it… and Gary doesn’t see that. Which, ya know, is understandable. And it’s too bad.
I just want to highlight a couple more things from this interview, but again: listen to or read the whole thing (TEXT)(AUDIO). I should focus on the positive here and I’ll stay out of the negative.
Although Jesus Christ, what a prick. 43:22 Gary:"So you actually take pride in your work?" Ugh.
When Todd and Gary are sorta talking about the relationship (or duality) between quality and commercialism, Todd has a good line on Tape #2, at 5:30: "I fear Utopia, because I’m going, “Fuck, we’re going to all eat spaghetti and macaroni and like it?” Heh. They go back and forth (and it’s good). Gary resists his attempts to draw metaphors to blue jeans. Todd asks if the Critic should be our God: 7:50"Am I calling you Jesus at that point? I’ve said, ‘Ah, Jesus, that Gary,’ but it’s not like that. There’s a comma in there.” Gary chuckles.
And it leads to this great bit at the 9:00 mark:
Todd: “I agree in the fact that, you’re right, we should strive for better things in life, but we get into an almost impossible puzzle. We should strive for something that’s better, but I think we should strive for something that’s better for us, personally. What’s better for me, personally, might be repulsive to you, personally. Or vice versa. If I like to read Harlequin romances, and I get something out of Harlequin romances, then to me it’s OK that they’re there. Let the cream rise to the top. I always believe, throw out a thousand things. Part of it is manipulation, like you’re saying. But, unfortunately, all I can do as a lonely employee is either accept it, fight while I’m with the company, or eventually quit, and I’ve done all of those things. I think that I’ve somewhat lived up to my end of the bargain.”
I love this thing about “striving for what’s better for us, personally.” It’s like a beautiful message for all humans! The weird thing about this whole interview is Gary’s nastiness. He comes off like he thinks he’s the protagonist and Todd’s the antagonist. Gary even says somewhere in here that when sales increase for stupid books, they go down for smart books (or something). But I don’t think so! “The pie is getting bigger,” ya know? When more people read shitty mainstream comics, then a few more people will trickle over to our side of the creek. And as it happens I think this is how the progress of civilization sorta works…. when more people on this globe try to be better people and try to pass knowledge and empathy to their children, even if their worldview is opposed to mine, I do have faith that it’s a good thing from a wider perspective. I mean Gary has a valid point of view (because maybe Todd’s comics are shitty!). But Gary treats him with obvious disdain, and that’s pretty rude and uncalled for. Yeah I’d say Gary’s “wrong.” So anyway that’s too much of RCS’s opinions. Thank you for reading this far!
I’m obligated to address this one famous exchange:
Gary: “Do you think your comics are well written?”
Pull that quote out, and you have a siiiiiick burn!! If you’re reading this interview because you want to, like, justify your negative opinion of McFarlane, then you got it! But if you have an open mind, then I think the rest of his response is just fine. QFT:
15:00 “See, I think what makes my comics work is that the whole is better than the parts of it. I don’t think I’m the best storyteller out there. I don’t think I’m the best artist, the best inker, I might not have the best letter on the book … but somehow when you put those in the pot and you stir that thing around, it does something for a lot of kids out there. Is it perfect? Nah, Gary, but it’d never be perfect. Could it be better? Yeah it could be better, but I don’t know that the trade-off of working with a writer that’s better than I am — which is probably 95 percent of them out there — that the trade-off would be that I’d be frustrated, so that all of a sudden, my mind would start to go, and the whole cycle starts all over again. All I know is, personally, I’m doing what I know is keeping me personally happy. Is it the best written stuff out there? Nope. Is it the worst? I don’t think so. I’ve only been at it for a year, so hopefully I’ll get better.”
The rest got cut out of the audio tape. This seems pretty essential to me:
"I’m a fuck, let me tell you about it, but you know what? The kids never see that side of me. When I’m in front of the kids, because they’re the most important thing to me, I’m a pussycat. I owe my life to every single one of those kids that buys my book. I don’t care if they’re 8 or 28, or 88. It’s the readers that I owe everything to. I don’t give a shit about the fucking other people that are along the chain. They exist because, ultimately, because of those kids." (Hell yeah!)
Later Gary griefs Todd for admitting that he’s ignorant and doesn’t read anything. Hey I’m Ryan Cecil Smith here and I wanna say that I’m ignorant and I don’t read enough. Oh wait… am I supposed to SAY that I’m smart and that I read a lot? Whatever. Todd is charming through it all: "I don’t read nothing really. I read the sports page … and then The Comics Journal — I’m going to give you a plug.” Heehee.
Todd’s attitude impresses me throughout this whole thing. I admit I wasn’t around when he was making these (terrible?) comics and I’m only picking this one interview out of dozens or hundreds. Maybe he was a dummy, a “fuck.” I do think that he’s under-appreciated in this interview, but maybe I’m missing a lot. We all have our moments. There are a lot of good ones here. Not everyone can be Todd McFarlane and not everyone should be, but I’d be stoked if I was selling 5,000 of my comics every month (maybe I have 5,000 web views). Keep striving! And go ahead and keep hating bad comics! But don’t be such a prick to someone’s face (or on the phone, or in Tumblr comments) if you know they’re doing their best, too. Right??