Friday, 1 July 2011

The Spaniard in the Works (part 5)

I left this disquisition at the point at which a hundred thousand words and more had been expended arguing over the meanings of words. And while I believe it is a thing to be avoided at all costs, I invariably find myself trapped in a situation where I have to deal with the subject. In short I am called upon to explain la novela Gráfica, as happened in the Barcelona interview described at the beginning of this series of posts.

So I have evolved a strategy for getting through the process without giving in or falling prey to the innumerable stupidities to which the comics world has subjected it. The first problem to navigate past the idea that it is a format. At this early juncture I usually bring up Will Eisner, who has a substantial reputation with both the regressive and the progressive crowds. This artist is often given as the initiating spark for the whole thing. Whether it is true or not is one of those arguments that leads to tears and should be avoided. So I'm not saying he was or he wasn't, he's just a place to start that is likely to be accepted by most parties.

What did Will Eisner mean when he called that first book of his a 'graphic novel'? The naysayers are quick to point out that it is a collection of short stories, and in the field of writing, a bunch of short stories does not make a novel. The problem with these naysayers is that they are usually the same people who argue that 'graphic novel' is a format, without any concern for the fact that in the field of writing, a novel is not a format. In other words, they are trying to have it both ways, though unconsciously, since the contradiction does not normally occur to them. I don't think the majority of comics readers can separate the idea of 'form', where comics are concerned, from 'format'. Put it this way, a song is a musical form and an mp3 is a format. It should be easy enough to separate those two concepts and apply the same principle to comics.

Will Eisner clearly wasn't thinking of a graphic novel as a format. This is easy enough to demonstrate. In the same month that A Contract With God appeared from Baronet books., October 1978, he also started serializing Life on another Planet in the Kitchen Sink Press Spirit magazine, in 16 page 'signatures', with 'A GRAPHIC NOVEL printed on the very first page. We may deduce that he had given up on the idea of another book like the first one. The reader was instructed to cut out the pages, fold them and secure at the side with thread or whatever. It is perhaps to be observed that he was thinking his graphic novels were going to be in a small format like paperback books, but let's not confuse the issue here, as later episodes were all printed full page size (somebody probably pointed out to Will that folks nowadays are not inclined to cut up their magazines, so anybody who cut out the first one would have done so in vain.) In his mind he was drawing a long-form comic, which he called a graphic novel, and he was serializing it. That is, he didn't retroactively decide it was a graphic novel. I only mention that in relation to one of the Spanish arguments.

(From Spirit magazine #19, oct 1978. Kitchen Sink Press)

So, what did he mean by novel then? The answer that gets me out of this catch-22, invariably leads to an even trickier quandary. He was making a bid for 'literariness'. The problem I find myself in at this juncture is that I must then say what I mean by 'literary', and my own idea of it is somewhat different from Will's. His idea of literary would have implied a shelf of books that you keep, in contrast to the low status of the throw-away comic, and in subject it would perhaps have been bounded by Ring Lardner at the populist end and Booth Tarkington at the more serious (consider his grand family saga, The Name of the Game in comparison to The Magnificent Ambersons). Whether Eisner ever reached the goal of his ambition is a separate argument. For this one, let it simply be noted that he often said he imagined a comic that went beyond 'stories of pursuit and vengeance', that dealt with more profound subjects "such as a man's relationship to God". From the beginning he wanted to create a different kind of comic.

As to my idea of literary then; can comics be literature? (let's not lose sight of the fact that the graphic novel is a kind of comics). This question is a minefield. On the one hand I suspect that there is a school of thought that rejects such a pretension, that insists that the essence of comics is that they are always anti-status quo, subversive in some way or other, and that literature is the stuff foisted on you in school and comics are the natural antidote to society's streamlining of us. On the other there is the intellectual standpoint that insists that comics are an autonomous art-form and not just a genre within an older traditional culture of reading.

The latter attitude holds to the presumption that literariness implies that the graphic element of a comic would be considered subservient, when the parts should be formal equals. Caroline Small answered this problem recently at The Hooded Utilitarian:
" I really resist the idea that literature is made of words (and also I suppose the idea that pictures are not made of words in the same way that all things are texts.) Literature is not prose or story. It is a register, a cluster of ways of making sense and making meaning that makes sense (or that meaningfully makes non-sense). It is a register that is almost always associated with words, but “word-thing” is not any sort of essence of literature to me. It is more “thing, often with words.” Or like Baetens says “a way that parameters are logically used.” The parameters are usually words, but that is just the “dispatch.” Once literature means how the parameter is used it can be made of anything."

As I said in yet another interview recently, Shaun Tan's The Arrival is a book without a single word in it, and I have no problem in thinking of it as literature. And Will Eisner was a practical man who would have had no time for the kind of complicated modern literary theory as read above, but there would have been no problem for him in considering a quality 'graphic novel' to be literature, whether it be Maus, or Palestine, or Persepolis, or Jimmy Corrigan. It should be recognized that, to a significant extent, the literature of our times has pictures.


(to be continued)

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25 Comments:

Blogger Berliac said...

Hi Eddie.

The last few parragraphs almost led me to tears. I've been following the discussion in Entrecomics (I'm argentinian, so unfortunately I understand all of the comments).

I just wanted to add something, when you say:

"there is a school of thought (...) that insists that the essence of comics is that they are always anti-status quo, subversive in some way or other, and that literature is the stuff foisted on you in school and comics are the natural antidote to society's streamlining of us".

I would also say that this "school of thought" has grown a status quo out of itself that reigns over a "Comics readership" (that is, a certain kind of society), and that this school of thought fear the fact that the Graphic Novel could be the antidote against it. This isn't new, it's the very same process behind any formerly-subversive movement that once it has came to power becomes totalitarian.

Greetings from Latin-America.

1 July 2011 5:50:00 pm GMT-5  
Anonymous José Torralba said...

Dear Mr. Campbell, since I am the Spaniard of your title, this brilliant article probably is addressed to me. Notice some points...

>> The naysayers are quick to point out that it is a collection of short stories, and in the field of writing, a bunch of short stories does not make a novel. The problem with these naysayers is that they are usually the same people who argue that 'graphic novel' is a format, without any concern for the fact that in the field of writing, a novel is not a format.

Kind of syllogism since you say that in graphic novels "graphic does not mean anything to do with graphics and that novel does not mean anything to do with novels", don't you think, yeasayer? So, in the field of writing, a novel could be not a format. And in the field of [don't say comic, it's embarrassing] a graphic novel could be a format.

By the way, although initially –a long time ago– I said that the graphic novel was a format, nowadays I support that it is a publishing label strongly associated with a publication format. At least here. See: your Alec (17x24), A drifting life (mirrored, 17x24), Peeters' RG Ryad-sur-Seine (17x24), Rubín The Hero (17x24), Satrapi's Persepolis (17x24), Jeff Smith's RASL, Spiegelman's Maus(17x24), etc. etc. etc. etc. Sorry for reality ruining your point. The 17x24 not always happen. That's why the "strongly" one before.

(to be continued...)

1 July 2011 7:12:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Berliac said...

What is commonly known as a "graphic novel format" is the result of a kind of work, and this work is the result of a kind of sensibility or, at least, an aim in density. The first step is my idea as an author: I want to express a certain idea, and its development will inevitably result in a book of a certain amount of pages, etc. The graphic novel is the result of my work as an author, not the other way around.

For what I read from Mr Torralba's quote, Eddie Campbell is referring to Graphic Novels not being such just for being "graphic" or just for being "novels", but for being both at the same time. Which is the idea behind the merchandising of these books: "Hey kids, we got books which are also graphic (yay, they ain't so boring) but also aren't about superheros (yay, thay ain't so stupid)". That's not how it works. At least out of Spain.

1 July 2011 7:38:00 pm GMT-5  
Anonymous José Torralba said...

>> Will Eisner clearly wasn't thinking of a graphic novel as a format.

Of course not. He was thinking of a graphic a novel as a publishing label. You know, Andelman explain this very well in his biography Will Eisner: A spirited life: Eisner trying to pitch the concept, Oscar Dystel from Bantam Books on the phone, Eisner thinking "don't tell Dystel it's a comic book or he will hang up on you" and Eisner saying consequently "It's a graphic novel". Because that's what this graphic novel thing does: provide an industry, a distributor, a retailer and a customer. Outside the old ones.

And here comes the serialization thing: this new world doesn't admit many mini-serialized products, as comic-books, prestige or magazines. It only admits books or books-alike products, though it doesn't made distinctions between a genuine one and a previously serialized one (TPBs, hardcovers, etc). That's why here, at Spain, we already have people asking in FNACs for the "new Green Lantern graphic novel". By Geoff Johns. True story. And that's why there, at the States, the New York Times Best Seller List for Graphic Books has Green Lantern on top.

(to be continued...)

1 July 2011 7:46:00 pm GMT-5  
Anonymous José Torralba said...

>> It should be recognized that, to a significant extent, the literature of our times has pictures.

No, it shouldn't. It COULD be recognized that. First of all, BRAVO! I say it sincerely. You are the first person I've met that quotes Caroline Small and that, doing so, secondarily quotes Baetens. Bravo! That's a good debate. But see what I said here and googlespain that:

"No es lo mismo entender la literatura como un hermano mayor al que aspirar por valores intrínsecos insostenibles desde un punto teórico (seriedad, profundidad, adultez, etc.) que entenderla como un paraguas que admite al cómic como un género en base a la relación de artículación lingüística de sus componentes".

Baetens, as Peeters or Groensteen, is a theorizer from the franco-belgian school; all of them very influenced by Saussure and the Structuralism. They made their theories upon the nature of the text and the linguistic articulation. But this school is as respectable as the one who says that there is a double-linguistic articulation on comics. And there is no consensus among philologist about the nature of the text. So it COULD be recognized, my dear yeasayer.

The problem is that here (Spain) graphic-novel theorizers often use Literature in order to give graphic novels a patina of respectability, under the assumption that Literature has some intrinsic qualities: adulthood, structure, complexity... So, the problem isn't a "Comic as Literature" thing. The problem is how you choose to defend that.

Best regards.

1 July 2011 8:18:00 pm GMT-5  
Anonymous José Torralba said...

Dear Mr. Berliac

>> The first step is my idea as an author: I want to express a certain idea, and its development will inevitably result in a book of a certain amount of pages, etc. The graphic novel is the result of my work as an author, not the other way around.

So you're making an object from a sense of freedom and supposing that anyone on the industry has freedom to work. Good. And seriously, do you think that DC Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns hasn't got freedom? Or Jim Lee? And that supposing that you have REAL freedom without money issues, editors, deadlines and so.

By the way, Eddie Campbell, with that, was only trying to stop strict definers obsessed with meanings; avoiding the rules of the "graphic" and the "novel" for his "graphic novel". That's what he said, and that's what he explained after.

1 July 2011 8:34:00 pm GMT-5  
Anonymous José Torralba said...

PS. Excuse me... not "anyone on the industry" but "nobody on the industry". Here is 3:45 a.m. and I'm really tired.

1 July 2011 8:47:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Berliac said...

I'm sorry but I can't find the word "freedom" in my comment. What I'm saying is that, if there are any restrictions on how to produce a graphic novel, there aren't of industrial/commercial sort. So in this sense, maybe the people you mention arent "free".

Anyway, that's not what I meant by "aim in density", which for you could be translated as "intención de profundidad". In that case, my answer is aformative: "Yes, seriously, I believe Jeoff Johns and Jim Lee have no aim of density".

I don't see a definition, a set of words (graphic and novel) as a constricting rule (which I got the feeling you certainly do) but as a possibility, an ever expanding system of ideas. You insist to define Graphic Novels as a ready-made-object, something out there to be exploited in an industrial and even simbolic way. Graphic Novel as an artistic (that is, social) movement (that is, colective) will find its way out of any academic barrier. When it finds it's own distinctive and definitive form, it will be out of itself, and not out of academic roundabouts. We authors keep producing them, and sometimes, such as in the case of Mr Campbell and many others, help with our "behind the desk" opinions to develop the idea behind that product. We have nothing to loose, because there's no battle. Graphic Novels don't need no questioning, thay are the question itself.

1 July 2011 8:56:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Berliac said...

Sorry about my "emotional" non-methodological approach, but Graphic Novel admits no autopsy since it's alive.

1 July 2011 8:58:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

Berliac,
The wife has me knocking tiles off the kitchen wall today (it's a schmozzle), and just checking in briefly here-but That last line is quotable!
'admits no autopsy!'
You'll turn up in one of my essays one day!

1 July 2011 9:08:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

yes you are positively right.
By Vimax volume semen pills


(going through my spam filter, I have decided to post the above comment on account of it agrees with me)

1 July 2011 9:12:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Berliac said...

Sure, Eddie, use it. Good luck with the wife...I mean, with the tiles.

P.S: the word verification asks me to type "EDUMO". Maybe that's your name in Googlespain.

1 July 2011 9:19:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

it is now!

1 July 2011 9:25:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Berliac said...

I was cooking some ravioli and it suddenly struck me:

"Maybe from the academic pov they might seem windmills, but down here in the battlefield they seem more like giants".

You know...spaniards...Quixote. Humour ain't my thing, I guess.

1 July 2011 10:07:00 pm GMT-5  
Anonymous José Torralba said...

Dear Mr. Berliac

>> Graphic Novel as an artistic (that is, social) movement (that is, colective) will find its way out of any academic barrier. When it finds it's own distinctive and definitive form, it will be out of itself, and not out of academic roundabouts etc, etc, no autopsy.

Oh, Gosh! I will throw La novela gráfica to the toilet then, because I would swear it's an academic work. But yeah, you got it... Only miss the "Comic is like a dead herring in the moonlight; It shines, but it stinks" quote or something. But I think you're ready and that you've got the spirit. Now, you only need a Time Machine or a Midnight in Paris and go directly to the early 20th century avant-garde art movements. Good luck!

2 July 2011 4:52:00 am GMT-5  
Anonymous Alberto Márquez said...

Eddie said: but there would have been no problem for him in considering a quality 'graphic novel' to be literature, whether it be Maus, or Palestine, or Persepolis, or Jimmy Corrigan.

Don't do that, or you will find yourself working in the same medium as Jude Deveraux and then you will try to change his name.

2 July 2011 5:16:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Matthew Adams said...

Jose, reading your comments is like watching little boys fight with plastic swords. They constantly swing away at each other's swords, but forget to attack the target behind the sword. You are flailing away at the words but forgeting the argument.

Or I am just having trouble understanding your argument because of your english(which is quite good, so probably not)?

2 July 2011 9:16:00 am GMT-5  
Blogger Berliac said...

I quote one of the comments made on an article I wrote some time ago in praise of the Graphic Novel, which you might also use, Eddie:

"We created a new country, and we named it'Graphic Novel'. Now we need to learn how to live in it".

2 July 2011 4:28:00 pm GMT-5  
Anonymous José Torralba said...

Maybe, or maybe Mr. Campbell is just a fencing master in a time of machine guns. Who knows? Punch lines aside, I'm aware that my points could be merely seen as a matter of terminology. But if you look correctly, Matthew, you'll notice that they refute satisfactorily the ones on this article. Mr. Campbell states three points here, and there goes a recap...

1. The graphic novel isn't a format because a novel isn't a format. Ok. Three rebuttals: 1) Mr. Campbell, not me, says that on "graphic novel", "novel" does not mean anything to do with "novels" so the whole point comes down (note that this counterargument is more logical than terminological). 2) Here in Spain the 17x24 cm2 has almost become a standard for graphic novels (industrial counterargument). 3 Anyway, my point is that the graphic novel is a publishing label (strongly associated with that format) so... (the "who are you talking with?" counterargument).

2. Will Eisner clearly wasn't thinking of a graphic novel as a format. He serialized here.. Five rebuttals: 1) Of course not, didn't read Will Eisner: A spirited life (the "who are you talking with?" counterargument). 2) He was originally thinking of a graphic novel as a publishing label in order to get his pitch approved (the "as I said" counterargument). 3) Anyway, that was in 1978, and things could have evolved since then (the historical counterargument). 4) The graphic novel thing encompass publishers, distributors, retailers and customers that don't admit mini-serialized products (in Spain), but hardcovers, tpbs, etc. 5 New York Times Best Seller List: Green Lantern. Previously serialized on Direct Market (not a "graphic thing" then). Now, a graphic book (realistic counterargument).

3. It should be recognized that, to a significant extent, the literature of our times has pictures. Two rebuttals: 1 "Should" implies obligation, duty or correctness, and since there are different but all respectable schools (the one that Campbell quotes, the ones that I quote) about that point, he must choose "could", which implies possibility (terminological but also academic counterargument). 2 The reasons to consider comics as literature don't have nothing in common with such points as structure, adulthood, depth, etc. (theoretical counterargument).

So, my dear Matthew... I don't know if you see all of this as épée, sabre or foil, but certainly it isn't a plastic sword or a merely terminological rebuttal. What did you expect, anyway? Something like "those pages are fakes"?

2 July 2011 6:02:00 pm GMT-5  
Anonymous José Torralba said...

>> I quote one of the comments made on an article I wrote some time ago in praise of the Graphic Novel, which you might also use, Eddie.

Probably. He's such a vacuous-but-catchy-slogan lover!

2 July 2011 6:08:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Berliac said...

I just found out that Mr Torralba is behind Zonanegativa. Now I get it. We're like Franciscans against the Church or something.

This is exactly what I meant in my very first comment, by "school of thought" I meant:

Dr Wertham in the fifties first wrote a book on how bad comics were for children. Then he wrote another book saying comics were kind of good. He didn't live long enough to write Mr Torralba's message: "That comics aren't good or bad, since they are the only thing that is". Graphic Novels (when not considered a merchandising device, when intended to be out of this system of beliefs) put this very basic idea in danger.

Comics as an industrial means and ends is the only way of seeing the whole thing for these people. They pretend to measure the weight of a stone by use of a ruler.

These people isn't against graphic novels. They are agains't change. All this reminds them that the world keeps moving and that everything that goes up must go down. It reminds them of their own extinction, as a species (a specific comics readership), and as individuals (that is, their identities in relation to the consumption of a specific product).

Their whole faith falls down to pieces. For the first time comics authors aren't this Gladiator-like unreachable idols, but normal people like you and I (and them), talking about their very own issues in a deep self-concious,self-controlled manner.

These people are being told Santa Claus were their very own parents the whole time, and instead of thanking them for all the presents, they punch them in the face for lying to them!

(P.D: sorry for saying "These people" all the time, but now you got two of them. Hey, look! There's another one coming out of that egg!)

2 July 2011 6:27:00 pm GMT-5  
Anonymous José Torralba said...

Ha ha ha ha you keep doing propagandistic pamphlets. And again, and again, and again. But this isn't a world for little impressionable boys, Berliac kid. This is a world for theory, logic, arguments and so. And you're unable to avoid the vacuous language, the pointless emotional sob-stuff and the cliché of thinking that there are only brainless superhero comic fans and complex graphic novels readers. You're a reductionist.

And you're simply lying: we're NOT against graphic novels and graphic novelists. We think that the graphic novel (publishing label strongly associated with a publication format) has become an extraordinary vehicle in order to provide authors, new generations and very different movements all along the world (we're not in a global one, but in a glocal one the opportunity (publisher, distributor, retailer and consumer) of transcend the traditional industry and achieve new goals. Even for that industry, graphic novel has become a way to use that opportunity. And we think that's beautiful and promising.

Zona Negativa, as one of the major weblogs about comics in Spanish (Spain and Latin America) since 1999, supports all of this and especially the authors. ALL OF THEM. We have an alliance with one of the most important comic schools here in Spain (Escola Joso). We have covered such comic events like the ones in Barcelona, Madrid, A Coruña, Mexico DF or Rosario. We run a weekly section only for spanish artists and works: two reviews and an interview each week. All of them working in Spain or Spaniards. We have recently started reviewing webcomics and talking with their authors. We have more than 2.000 reviews and articles. We have supported movements outside the industry like Polaqia. And we (we, not translated from somewhere) have interviewed Rick Veitch, Scott McCloud, Jim Starlin, David Rubín, Emma Ríos, Frank Quitely, Paco Roca, Paul Pope, Felipe Hernández Cava, Alan Moore, etc. etc. More than 200 interviews. Even Santiago García and Pepo Pérez. By the way, I prepared the theoretical section in the one with McCloud. Not easy. And we are consultants for specialized press, publishers, journalists, conventions, expositions, radio, tv, etc. So stop this stupid "we against them" thing.

What me and many of my colleagues (although here I'm only speaking for me) don't support is the segregation. We are not embarrassed at nothing. And we have enough personality to be free of social prejudices. We don't want a world of embarrassing comics and appreciated graphic novels. We want a world of appreciated historietas or comics. Some of them will be comic-books, comic strips, graphic novels, albums, tankobons, etc. Some of them will come from the industry, from autopublish works, from co-ops like L'Association, etc. And it must be a shame for an Argentine to tell that with the modern graphic novel comes the adulthood, having Oesterheld (Mort Cinder! The Eternaut!) amongst your countrymen.

Best regards.

2 July 2011 8:36:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Berliac said...

1.1) "novel" does not mean anything to do with "novels" MADE OF WORDS, that's why Caroline Small quote is brought. 2) The examples you brought belong to ONE publisher, check others and you'll see that Graphic Novels are PUBLISHED IN (and not ARE) other formats. Besides, restricting an internationall movement to a single country's editor's choice on how to manufacture a certain product is pretty weak. 3) That's what is being discussed here.

2.2) He told a specific publisher what he needed to hear. 3) Exactly, Eisner's trick grew into revolutionary approach to comics.4) Exactly, the product is the result of the author's choice (I said this before), and the industry adapts and takes its bit (...) 5) (...) at any cost.

3. 1) Comics are included in "literature". No one said "graphic novels are literature and comics aren't".

The points I don't mention is because your point is not clear.

P.S: Mr Torralba, please don't use my messages to express your thoughts on Mr Campbell, same as none of us take conclusions on you by what Mr Campbell says you to be.

2 July 2011 8:48:00 pm GMT-5  
Anonymous José Torralba said...

>> restricting an internationall movement to a single country's editor's choice on how to manufacture a certain product is pretty weak.

You caved your own grave. An international movement with local differences? An editor making choices and making a standard from a product that theoretically belongs to his authors and that can't be standarized? Speaking of my country as a pretty weak argument? Jojojojo back to school!! Maybe there someone will teach you what Spaniard means.

2 July 2011 9:25:00 pm GMT-5  
Blogger Your Mutineer said...

I've tended to think of "literature" as needing words, but "art" means much the same thing without necessarily having words. Which is to say, literature is a subset of art; the prose kind. Art can include theatre, film, photography, painting, sculpture, poetry, short stories, novels, music, dance, video games, and comics.

While I'm at it, I think my favorite definition of "comics" is from TCJ 300's Spiegelman/Huizenga interview (though they might've been quoting someone else, like Chris Ware)... "writing with pictures."

2 July 2011 11:34:00 pm GMT-5  

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