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Three simple rules for talking about comics.

First, make like the Lady Montague: never complain, never explain. You’re in this for the hearts and minds, which are impossible to score if you’re always on the defensive. Especially if you’re representing a scrappy little medium that never gets no respect from the major players. Bitching about that lack of respect won’t win you any points; losers bitch, and nobody cares what a loser thinks. And stop with the constantly introducing yourself. Assume you own the room, and you will. Drag queens know this trick, and trust me—people writing seriously about comics are drag queens in the critical apparatus: weird, liminal creatures, floating up out of the demimonde, that knock your socks off in the right light.

So none of this “Comics are a vital, vibrant medium, as capable of adult storytelling as any other” or “Superheroes aren’t merely adolescent power fantasies” crap, okay? It’s just insider baseball for “Bang! Zowie! Comics aren’t just for kids anymore!”—and that gag had whiskers when Reagan was president. Don’t sit there clutching at the ground you’ve already got—reach out and take more, and do it with grace and panache and not a little chutzpah. Tell us something we don’t know and make us sit up and take notice or at least make us get the fuck out of the way, and never look back.

Second: suffer no fools gladly—but always be charitable toward your friends and fellow travellers. And I’ll cheerfully allow as how this one’s the hardest: Lord knows I haven’t got it sussed in politics, say. You might boil it down to “Don’t eat your own,” but that’s a little tribal; you might mutter about dirty laundry and how it shouldn’t be washed in public, but that’s not really it, either. Flies and vinegar and honey, maybe? Oh, let’s take as a for instance a cartoonist like Jeff Parker: he’s got chops, he’s paid his dues in the storyboard mines, he’s done a book with adventure and super-powers and reviews that drop old skool names like Alex Toth. He’s an upstanding member of the tribe, is the point, and in the course of a recent interview he says something like this:

ST: What do you love/hate about the comic book industry?
JP: Let me begin with hate. (I love Peter Bagge’s Hate, by the way)
I get this symbolic image of a guy my age or older grabbing up superhero books from a shelf, with a little kid jumping around him trying to grab the books back. It’s an allegory of course, I’ve never seen this actually occur in a store. But there it is: my peers clinging madly to what they loved years ago, but now they’ve matured and want stories that explore relationships and heavier themes. Yet they can’t let go of the cape book, and the superheroes start killing each other and sleeping around, drinking, gambling, talking a whole lot … the kid has wandered off by now in search of something where good guys fight bad guys in a fun way. Back at the store, our adult has squeezed the bunnies to death. The moral? Give the kid his damned books back! Adolescent power fantasies are for powerless adolescents. Read a goddamned crime comic, or a romance book to meet those needs! We’re actually wondering why manga is doing so well now with kids? It’s pretty obvious—they’re writing to a young audience, using imagination and thinking about what would be fun. We can’t take any lessons from that? No, we look at it and think “hmmm the big eyes must be what they find appealing, or maybe these speedlines in the background …”
Give them back their books, and move on. Stop influencing what caped characters do. Stop having opinions on the X-Men. Our nostalgia gets credit for supporting the comics industry but what it really does is kill it. Pant, pant, wheeze ..
I forgot to mention something I love. I’ll come back to that.

And you’ve got two basic ways you can take this: on the one hand, you could say to yourself, you know, that Jeff, he’s one hell of a friend of the art. He’s a fellow-traveller—his love of adventure comics and storytelling and superheroes shines through. And he’s making a good point—there’s a dearth of kid-friendly comics, and avenues for getting those comics into the hands of kids, in the traditional American comics marketplace, or what’s left of it. Perhaps he’s being a bit hyperbolic—it’s more than possible to have a meaningful opinion on the X-Men; of course it is. But he’s mouthing off in an interview. Oh, sure, he could have made this point with greater clarity: “Stop having opinions about whether the X-Men should be wearing spandex again,” he might have said. Hindsight, bygones, l’esprit de l’escalier. His central image is colorful and telling; we can let him have it; we both, after all, have bigger fish to fry. (How does The Interman fit into Henley’s literature of ethics, say?)

Or! You could cry out, “A fool! I shall not suffer him gladly!” And then you could not suffer him with aggrieved asides and snarky commentary and then allow as how it was snarky commentary, really, but here’s why it was important, and before you know it, you’ve not only dissed your friends and fellow travellers, you’ve started complaining and explaining. Lady Montague sighs, and the hearts and minds are off after greener pastures. (Did you really think he was a fool? Did you really get any mileage out of claiming he was? For God’s sake, this isn’t Jonathan Lethem claiming he doesn’t write science fiction. Or Margaret Atwood, rather. Not anywhere near. And when in doubt, assume friend; we need all the friends we can get.) —Better luck next time.

(Why, yes. Of course these rules can be broken. All rules can be broken, if you know how, and when you’re done there’s no one left in a position to give a damn about how you broke the rules. —Yes, you can break that rule, too, of course you can. You know all this already.)

Third is simple enough: never open with a definition. (Or close with one, for that matter. Or stick one in the middle somewhere.) You’re here to describe, not prescribe; the critic’s mantra, to be repeated three times before ever taking up the pen, is “The map is not the thing mapped.” This isn’t rocket science: a genre, like superheroes, or a medium, like comics, has neither necessary nor sufficient conditions that can be limned in a few short, pithy words, to be folded up and tucked into your pocket. If the facts change, you must be prepared to change your mind. (There’s nothing sadder than a critic who can’t be surprised.) —Why, yes: I do know that Scott McCloud opened with a corker of a definition. But his (like everyone’s) is a special case: he was launching an entire critical enterprise, kickstarting a thousand thousand conversations like a mini-Big Bang; his definition (his attempt at a definition) was rather like Gödel going to Schrödinger’s liquor cabinet and opening it up to find out that the cat’s dead and his theory will never be complete, but so what—here’s that single malt he was looking for. Now the party can really get started. But even though he’s since backed sideways off from “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence” to, y’know, more of “a temporal map,” still, every young punk with a fast gun thinks they’ve made some telling point with every “yes, but” they can dredge up. (“Are your shoes comics?” I mean, really.) It gets old fast and it distracts from the real business we really ought to be about and frankly, it’s embarassing; best not to encourage them in the first place, and anyway, “Webster’s defines the thing I’m about to blow 800 words on as” is a rhetorical device best left to collegiate editorialists. Y’know?

—Your assignment, then, if you haven’t already, and should you choose to accept one from the likes of me: pick up a copy of Samuel Delany’s Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts and the Politics of the Paraliterary, so you can read “The Politics of Paraliterary Criticism.” It’s all about comics and writing about comics and genre and art and craft, and he’s much smarter than I am, so pay attention.

  1. J.D. Roth    Mar 18, 08:18 AM    #
    Comics are awesome.

    They're also — as you point out — difficult to explain or to justify to those who don't get them, or don't want to get them. So why even bother?

    One of our book group members pulled a fast one last month. He select Art Spiegelman's Maus and Maus II for discussion. These post-modern comics tell the story of Art's Jewish father and his experiences in Nazi Europe.

    Without fail, all of the non-comics readers in the group said, "Huh. I thought comics were all about guys in tights having fistfights." We comics readers — all two of us — didn't try to force the issue. We just said, "Well, now you see you were wrong." and offered to loan them other stuff. American Splendor, anyone?

    Of course, there's nothing wrong with the guys in tights having fistfights. Lord knows that makes up the bulk of my collection. And so what? These people complaining about the juvenalia of comics spend much of their time in front of the television, watching pap. I don't do that. To each his own, I say.

    Comics are awesome.

  2. Steven Berg    Mar 18, 08:47 AM    #
    You know, you just may be on to something. And at any rate this particular debate among comics bloggers has gotten badly out of control and hostile recently.

  3. David Fiore    Mar 18, 08:59 AM    #
    Good essay here--and I think I generally blog along the lines you prescribe. I demand that people accept the works I discuss (Animal Man, Watchmen, Dark Knight, the Gwen Stacy Clone Saga, etc...) as valid objects of study... The only time I see fit to "complain" is when I observe the spectacle of other folks so intent on begging the world to accept comics as "legitimate" that they are willing to "eat their own", as you put it.

    On a related note--I don't have anything against Jeff Parker, but I certainly don't consider him one of "my own", and I'm not going to pretend that I do, sorry... And if you think Hammett and Bronte (not to mention Hawthorne, Melville, etc!) have nothing to do with superheroes, then we're on opposite sides of the debate too, because my project is to establish that this genre derives from the 19th century "romance" tradition!

    There are a lot of ways to discuss comics my friend--don't limit yourself!

    Dave

  4. --k.    Mar 18, 01:07 PM    #
    My parents had the same reaction, J.D. The fallacy to watch out for now is that of the "noble savage": Maus, they'll say, isn't comics, because it's good, and comics aren't good. QED. (Which is not to say my parents said any such thing. They like Will Eisner, too, and my littlest sister agreed that Ghost World was much better as a comic. But keep your eyes peeled.)

    Thanks, Steven, and in case it isn't clear: there's a lot of good comics blogging over on Peiratikos. Even if I razz him a bit in the above. (Memo to self: beef up comics blogosphere linchinography. Right after you add all those local Portland links.)

    And David: you don't have to consider Jeff one of your own to realize it's folly, attacking him so vituperatively for what is, on the face of it, a minor crime at worst. (It's why I rejected "Don't eat your own" as too tribal a sentiment. —This whole kerfluffle is haunted by the spectre of that Kissinger quote, about university politics: "They are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.") —As for letting poor Emily and Dashiell alone: it's not so much I deny the connection, which would be foolish; everything's connected. But they're tired, see, of always getting hauled out for arguments like this. The hubub's getting to them. There's a great section in the Delany essay cited above on influence which I heartily commend to your attention, for precisely this sort of thing.

    And while we're at it: Bethanne Barnes has written a lovely post about why she hates comics. Go, read...

  5. Jim Henley    Mar 19, 12:40 PM    #
    I'm in trouble now. I just turned in the essay version of my recent superhero apologias to the editor of the online mag Brainwash Wednesday night. It's pretty much nothing BUT explaining. (With a little complaining mixed in.) Oh well.

  6. --k.    Mar 19, 12:58 PM    #
    Ah, but Jim: you've broken enough rules to know how, by now. I have faith.

    (You didn't use a definition, did you?)

  7. Jim Henley    Mar 19, 04:40 PM    #
    Um, the phrase "literature of ethics" might have been used.

  8. --k.    Mar 19, 05:40 PM    #
    Oh my. Oh, my. We'll just have to wait and see, then, won't we.

    (Big fan of the idea, by the way, the literature of ethics. I keep meaning to sit down with it and a recent post over at John & Belle (oh, heck, there's a new one) and try my hand at tinkering with my memories and expectations of, oh, the X-Men, or Batman, or something, and see what I come up with. So I'm eagerly anticipating the Brainwash piece, now. —Unless you managed a hat trick, and both suffered fools gladly, and were not generous with your friends and fellow travellers. In which case...)

  9. Nick Douglas    Mar 21, 11:05 AM    #
    Chris Ware treats the comics stereotype issue in "Jimmy Corrigan." He draws a bookstore employee filing Ware's work in the "Literature" section. The boss yells at the employee and stick Ware's book next to "Sci-Fi" and "Fantasy" with all the other comics.

    Ware's most frustrated because "Jimmy Corrigan" is about a boy's unfortunate life in late 19th-century Chicago and that boy's grandson, another pathetic figure who deals with meeting his father at the age of 35 and trying to find a girlfriend. Not sci-fi. Not fantasy. Not men in tights.

    Comics broke out of superheroes and genre work decades ago, but public consciousness has hardly caught up.

  10. The Things You Leave Behind v5.72    Mar 30, 10:45 AM    #
    Discussion! (?)
    Still visiting Scott McCloud's bLog... Here's Three Rules For Talking About Comics Here's those every-open kids of TCJ arguing about form and function... A comic about infinite canvas... And here's a casual acquaintance of mine, the ever-talented Dylan...

  11. Robert Walker-Smith    Apr 16, 10:27 AM    #
    I just blundered into this discussion. I
    could retrace my steps, but suffice it to
    say that I am an inveterate, if erratic,
    comics reader and aspiring comics creator.

    This sort of discussion is moderately
    dispiriting to me - I'm usually quite confident
    of my intellectual capacity, but bringing in
    things like Delany's 'Paraliterary' book as
    required reading is rather daunting. I tried
    reading his "Jewel Hinged Jaw" a few years back, and gave up in despair.
    Perhaps I'm just hopelessly stuck back in the Twentieth, but is a working command of postmodernist literary criticism and theory now necessary for writing comics?
    Don't mean to sound whiny, but I like traditional narrative and plot development. My husband accuses me of being excessively Aristotelian in my sensibilities, but hey, that's what I like.

    Should I even be _creating_ comics? (Note: tongue in cheek rhetorical question).

  12. --k.    Apr 17, 10:52 PM    #
    Well, the last thing I want to do is dispirit folks. Nor do I want to leave the impression that "The Politics of Paraliterary Criticism" is, despite its title, in any way daunting; it's a clear critique of and response to and appreciation of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, probably the best yet done, which is why I recommend it so highly, and along the way Delany makes some glancingly important points about art and craft and the comics industry and the sorts of things anybody who writes about comics or any other "paraliterary" work (a useful word: the sorts of work outside the normal bounds of what's considered canonical or literary: SF, fantasy, horror, comic books of most stripes, pornography, westerns, Napoleonic nautical fiction, etc. etc.--and all of them concerned in one way or another with traditional narrative and plot development, so)--what the comics etc. critic (or the cartoonist, granted) would find it valuable to spend some time kicking around. --Delany is crisp and clear and lucid and he doesn't write like a bad translation from the French: you don't need a working command of any theory to read him. If you get the chance, do try to track down Shorter Views (a decent-sized library ought to have it) and give that essay a try: he gives you quite generously what you need to get at what he's saying.

    And of course you should be creating comics. The world needs more comics.

  13. Robert Walker-Smith    May 11, 01:59 PM    #
    Oh my dear sir.

    I've read "Politics of Paraliterary
    Criticism" twice so far. I don't usually
    feel ignorant when reading - it's quite
    unfamiliar. The last time it happened,
    oddly enough, was when I made the mistake
    of reading "Reinventing Comics" by McCloud
    before reading "Understanding Comics."
    To omit unnecessary detail, I went back,
    read UC - twice - then went back to RC,
    whereupon it made sense.
    What should I go and read so that I can
    come back to PPC and make sense of it? I
    don't want to belabor the point, but between
    the parts of Delany's piece that I simply
    can't understand, and the parts I think I
    understand but can't believe that someone of
    Delany's intelligence is saying, something
    is missing. If I don't need a working command
    of any theory to understand that "the origin is always a political construct" and that any attempt to define a genre is invidious - I'm tempted to say by definition - then I need a working command of something.
    To summarize brutally - my impression is that Delany is speaking to readers who are, among other things, academics or academically trained in current styles of literary criticism. The intensity with which he attacks the very idea of determining the origins and definition of 'comics' - or anything else, for that matter - speaks to me of battles fought in wars the existence of which I was previously unaware.

    I'd certainly be willing to take this off the board, but that's your call. I'm baffled as to how what Delany is saying will help me at all - from what little I can understand, he's saying that people like me have no business creating at all - or, to be more precise, that the sort of art that people like me create shouldn't be created.

  14. --k.    May 11, 06:25 PM    #
    To state that something is something, or definitely began somewhere, is to limit it: to say that this thing which isn't what you said can't be the thing you're talking about; this thing which happened earlier than when you said it all started is not up for discussion. --If your definition of comics is "pictorial and other images juxtaposed in deliberate sequence," then you've knocked out single-panel cartoons from consideration. If your origin of comics is Outcault's Yellow Kid, then you can't ponder the comics storytelling that might be present in Trajan's Column or the Bayeux Tapestry. Your definition limits you: and any definition that tries to hard to become Fact is too rigid to be useful.

    And all too often, people write their definitions and peg their starting points with a not-altogether-conscious eye toward what they're excluding or leaving off the table. Any time you do that, you can't help but muck about with political ramifications.

    Now, we can't not define; we can't not start somewhere (and Delany's own bailiwick of the paraliterary depends on the continued dismissal of the literary for its kick, but that's where the rueful chuckles come in). But we need to be aware of what we're doing and ready to deal with those ramifications. (Myself, I like to repeat a simple mantra: "The map is not the thing mapped." Another good way to think of it is the tagline of a blog that sennoma recommended but I can't find at the moment: "All models are wrong. Some are useful." To define something or peg a starting date is a useful convention for this discussion, or that; a net to allow a game of tennis, a harness to pull in. But it is not in and of itself a Fact. But I'm afraid I'm just muddying the waters further.)

    What concerns me is that Delany's point is almost the opposite of what you've taken away: by recognizing the limited, contingent power of definitions, we open up the art we can make and the ways we can respond to it. The beginning of the essay, the parable about the writer being ruthlessly "taught" the comics industry way of crafting a script, the whole idea of "craft" vs. "art" and the ways that set of definitions limits the comics that are produced: that's all about limiting art, about saying "you" (for any of a number of possible yous) can't do what you want to do, because comics is this, and this is how it's done. Delany is railing (eloquently, so maybe not so much with the railing) against that, and trying to open up--well, everything, really. --Take that to heart, and don't mistrust his essay simply because it smells of academia.

  15. Robert Walker-Smith    May 12, 07:41 AM    #
    Thank you for your clarification.

    You are correct - what I've taken away from Delany is the exact opposite of what you're saying. I'm familiar with the 'map is not the territory' aphorism - it's one of my personal favorites. What I found so . . enraging is not too strong a word about Delany's argument was precisely that he (seemed to me to be) was claiming that his map, unlike McCloud's, _was_ the territory. The reader is free to disagree with him, with the understanding that the reader would be wrong. I believe the technical term is 'false consciousness'.

    I'm not sure how far to take this, as my reaction/response to Delany's essay is almost more emotional than intellectual - I want to open up the ways I can make art, but being told that there is one correct way to think about comics doesn't seem (to me) to be it. I also went on to read some of the other pieces in the book, and some of the things he said about how fiction should be written were - well, if I were at a party, and he was saying them to me in person, I would have to leave the room.

    Perhaps the problem is that, while an intellectual and fairly well read, I am not an academic. The philosophy Delany espouses (as I understand it) does not sound like a call for creative freedom, but a prescription for orthodoxy. When I have a tale to tell, I'm not going to ask Delany for permission to break his rules.

    My apologies for taking up so much space on your page, but I feel very strongly about this. I appreciate your recommending the book; it's given me something to rebel against.

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