Friday, 5 August 2011

A big Spread-8

S ize is the red herring of the graphic novel. This is a quotation from way back:
"In a recent Comics Journal interview, Dave Sim complains about the use of the term 'graphic novel' for a mere 60 or 100 page story, pointing out for instance that Marvel has issued a set of science fiction 'graphic novels' that adapted sf short stories. How did a short story become a novel by adding (juxtaposed sequential) pictures to it?"
Sim used to think that the whole 6,000 pages (the size, planned and accomplished, of his entire Cerebus) ought to be counted a significant 'graphic novel' if the existence of such a thing were to be acknowledged in the first place, and Sim tended to be ambivalent about that. Before long the terminology got universally confused, so that instead of the work inside the book being the 'graphic novel', it was the book itself (viz. the phrase 'publish it as a graphic novel' as opposed to 'publish my graphic novel in book form', thus you could publish your short story as a graphic novel.) Sim seems to have adapted to usage, so that we may take the above quote as being very early, but let's not get stuck under it as I'm just using this to get to something else.

The issue is not really about size, but rather what we may call 'closed form.' A short story and a novel are both closed forms, which is to say that they do not continue from something else or continue into another thing, like the daily episodes of afternoon tv soap operas. Nor do they put everything back at the end so that they can repeat cyclically for as long as the property has commercial value, like tv detectives. It's worth noting that in comics in the 1970s, at the same time as the 'graphic novel' raised its head, there was also a revival of the short story, somewhat forgotten since the '50s when it was the predominant form in comic books. But note that there's nothing particularly elevated about this, as the short story in comics is usually a horror story of the most trivial sort (I've never understood the attraction of Creepy and Eerie).

Artists always liked the short story. For seven or eight pages they could do their thing without having to follow somebody else's character designs, or continuity, or work over another artist's layouts for the sake of some bigger consistency. And they would usually get to ink the thing too, and have control over the final appearance. Whether they cared that they were asked to illustrate a good story or a bad one is difficult to judge as they usually did the job as well one way or the other. Furthermore, on those occasions when otherwise accomplished artists were given carte blanche to create their own thing they often disconcertingly went with the cliche, as though they really believed in it all along. Thus Steranko and his Chandler, a compendium of well polished film noir plot turns, or Doug Wildey and his Rio, a western in which nothing happens that hadn't happened in other westerns. But artists liked the short story most of all because in a sense they were the star of it, not as opposed to the writer, but to the character.

Closed forms were also a desperately needed way of attracting a general audience, the casual reader, as comic book culture became mired in continuity and collectibles. It was a way of clearing the table before it was too late. But I want to stay with this as an aesthetic idea. To return to the 6,000 pages, an attempt to close a form of such dimensions is like closing the gate on a sheep pen whose boundaries are further apart than any sheep can walk, like Europe say. The parts could go to war with each other. Nevertheless Sim followed his course all the way to the death of his protagonist, as he said he would. Then closed it. Interviewed in The Onion shortly after:
O: ... would you consider a follow-up or spin-off Cerebus series?

DS: No. Cerebus is my attempt at a literary work. A literary work doesn't have follow-ups or spin-offs. It's ridiculous to think about More Crime, More Punishment or The Sons & Nephews Karamazov.

(which dovetails nicely with my earlier discussion of literariness.)



Blogger Matthew Adams said...

Completely off-topic: Eddie, have read any of Richard Thompson's Cul de Sac? It's worth checking out.

Back on topic: I think the closed form is a pretty useful description. And of course it is glaringly obvious.

And it still allows for graphic novels to be printed in three, or ten, or however many parts.

5 August 2011 at 22:45:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Loris Z. said...

Hello Eddie,

"closed form" is a very good way to refer at the inception of the work. Like you well said about Sim, his intention for Cerebus was doing these 6000 pages from the start, a closed thing.

It reminds me of a long forgotten project that I had, my first intent of a proper novel instead of short stories (I started it around...1999?). Right from the start I thought of it as a book with chapters.

(I ended up scrapping the thing after a last rewrite. It wasn't a story I did want to tell anymore)

I'm writing from work, so please excuse how broken this seems...

Take care!


6 August 2011 at 01:59:00 GMT-5  
Anonymous Michael G. said...

Eddie, I'm curious about the structural similarity between Cerebus and Bacchus. Did you set out with likewise intentions for and do you consider the end results comparable?

6 August 2011 at 10:03:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Ray Davis said...

... or Rabbit Redux, or "More Chronicles of Barsetshire," or "The Return of Stephen Dedalus," or "Henry V"....

But yeah, arguably only two of those were intended as "literary."

6 August 2011 at 11:01:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Colman G said...

Ahhh, come on, Ray. You know what he meant. The context for the interview question is the American comic book industry. In that context, Sim's reply—and Eddie's thesis—is pretty straightforward.

There's a difference between The Return of Stephen Dedalus (as you put it) and The Return of Sherlock Holmes. Your fudging of that difference is witty, but also kind of obtuse.

8 August 2011 at 22:31:00 GMT-5  
Blogger Eddie Campbell said...

To Michael G (presumably not related to Colman G)- never thought about the structural similarity before, but was always mystified that readers thought Bacchus just kind of peters out, given that the very thing Joe Theseus wanted and Bacchus didn't want, from the opening pages of volume 1, comes to pass, but not quite as either could have predicted. I didn't have long term intentions, but if you deal with your narrative material honestly stories tend to drive themselves toward their own logical conclusions.

As for the other argument, that's gone over my head.

Matthew- Cul de sac, one of a handful of newspaper strips still worth looking at, and a beautiful piece of work..

9 August 2011 at 01:35:00 GMT-5  

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