The Literaries

In the wake of the comics medium’s forty-year hike to serious acceptance, the chances are that now a person won’t get laughed out the room for putting them on a par with Literature. The flipside of the medium having gained this kind of recognition is that it has also acquired a new species of critic who demands that comics be held to the standards of LITERATURE. Since the invasion of these literaries, I have been observing a tendency to ask the question: if this weren’t a comic would it stand up? Would the story be any good if it were prose and in competition with the rest of the world’s prose? If we take away all these damn pictures, would the stuff that is left be worth a hoot?

Thus we see, for example, the recent argument about the 1950s EC comics, started by Ng Suat Tong: "Over two millennia ago, Aristophanes was brilliantly mocking the tragedies of Euripides (Women at the Thesmophoria) and risking prosecution with forthright attacks on the leaders of Athens. Contrast this with what we get in Mad…"

And this: "'Master Race' is, however, a children’s story... As a children’s story, it does not contain one iota of the humanity found in a thirteen year old girl’s famous diary during World War 2-enshrouded Amsterdam. It is pathetic that it should still be considered one of the finest stories ever created in comics."

We might not get laughed out of the room, but the question is, would we want to be stuck in it with some guy who would ask: Since we already have Aristophanes, who needs Kurtzman? Since we have Erasmus of Rotterdam, why would we want Steve Martin? With Wagner still available, who cares about the Firehouse Five? Furthermore, would we let that guy organize the party music?

What appears at first to be taking a more stringent view is in fact applying irrelevant criteria. It dismantles the idea of a comic and leaves the parts hopelessly undone.

The argument was picked up by Chris Mautner, who does not while away his lunch hour with the immortals on Parnassus like the above critic, but just wants a fair serve of story for his buck. And he sees the story as exactly the one that can be summed up in terms of the "plot."

"Rather than saying ‘Mad was great,’ we should be saying which stories in Mad were great…” “'Pirate Gold' … is a fun, jet-propelled story of an amnesiac sea captain out for revenge…” “…stories like 'Contact!', a simplistic, jingoistic ‘us versus them’  tale that naively suggests America will win the Korean War solely because ‘we believe in good’" … “'F-86 Sabre-Jet', a mesmerizing tale of derring-do aeronautics…"

This critic does not have the pretensions of the first one, but is still reducing a comic to its "story."

Jeet Heer, in the comments following Gary Groth’s response to Mautner, shows more inclination to recognize the pictures, but he too, apologetically, wants to separate them from the package: "Most of the EC books belong to the history of American drawing & illustration rather than the history of American comics.”

Heer is choosing to ignore the fact that a narrative drawing is still a narrative drawing even when isolated from its story setting. Removed from its context it will just be telling a slightly different story. All the drawings in an EC comic are narrative drawings. Indeed they are the particular species of narrative drawing that belong entirely and exclusively to comics. If you dismantled the running order of an EC comic story, threw out the ending and mixed more than one story together, the drawings could still only belong to the history of comics (to express it in the terms of the given argument).

Let me fix the Kurtzman war comic in the reader’s mind before moving on. Here is the cover of Two-Fisted Tales #26, March 1952. There is a whole story in it and the way the story is told is quite sophisticated. A soldier in the middle of a historical action is already referring to it in the past tense. The first time I saw Kurtzman’s war comic art I wondered how on Earth he was able to get away with something so radical as that choppy cartooning, so far removed from what one would expect in war art. (Ng Suat Tong wants us to know he would be expecting no less than Goya.) He used the same choppy drawing on the early Mad covers. Notice how the Mad example, #7 October 1953, also tells a whole story. It took Kurtzman months, years, to distil this ink. That’s a story too.

Comics have had different kinds of critics at different times. I recall an earlier phase, in which the French critic Maurice Horn (I think it was he) took pains to compare comics (he was writing about Tarzan and Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon) to eighteenth-century opera. In studying opera, in this theory, it is not wise to attend too critically to the story material, with all its pleasant pastoral business with the shepherds and the nymphs. Our attention is more fruitfully applied to the dramatic use of the music, and to the beauties that the attentive ear can find there. Note here that if you isolate the music it does not cease to be dramatic-narrative music. It remains quite different in form and purpose from the more abstract music of an instrumental sonata. Applying the same principle to comics, the art is to be found in the story the cartoonist tells in his graphic strokes, his deployment of the whole panoply of cartoon effects and ways of seeing and representing. In the work of an exceptional artist there can be a whole other story happening. It was well explained by Robert Fiore in his response to Ng Suat Tong, though I don’t think anybody else has so far seized upon it:

What comics give us most of all is the experience of comics. What I mean is the way a given cartoonist portrays the world- the particular kind of subjectivity that is the cartoonist's special privilege- and the way the cartoonist tells his story from panel to panel. You can get this experience from comics whose intellectual content is fairly negligible.

By way of a comparison, think of the great Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit". It is a fine literary poem, set to music, and its author could have found no better singer to put it across. But a die-hard fan of Billie Holiday, the kind who has most of her recordings, is more likely to put on something from her earlier Columbia series of recordings, like "You’re a Lucky Guy" or "Billie’s Blues"  (“I ain’t good looking, and my hair ain’t curled”). A good number of the songs she had to sing during that period weren’t particularly good songs by high critical standards, and she didn’t have much choice in the matter, but the important thing is the musical alchemy by which she turned them into something precious. That and the happy accident of the first-rate jazz musicians she found herself playing with, such as Teddy Wilson and Lester Young. Every time she sang she told her own story, whatever the material she was working with. I’m not talking here about technique, a set of applications that can be learned, or about an aesthetic aspect of the work that can be separated from the work’s primary purpose. The performer’s story is the essence of jazz music. The question should not be whether the ostensible "story," the plot and all its detail, is worth our time; stories tend to all go one way or another. The question should be whether the person or persons performing the story, whether in pictures or speech or dance or song, or all of the above, have made it their own and have made it worthy.

Here’s another example. Read Umberto Eco’s essay "Casablanca, or, The Clichés are Having a Ball".

…aesthetically speaking (or by any strict critical standards) Casablanca is a very mediocre film. It is a comic strip, a hotch-potch, low on psychological credibility... And this is the reason it works, in spite of aesthetic theories and theories of film making… When all the archetypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion. Just as the height of pain may encounter sensual pleasure… so too the height of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the sublime.”

To explain the value of Casablanca by its plot would be lame. To represent Billie Holiday’s work in terms of song lyrics would be to do her an injustice, which is not to say that there weren’t felicitous moments. The true appreciation of all this stuff demands a less linear mind.

Moving sideways at this point takes me to another recurring argument that falls within the jurisdiction of the present rant. I refer to the incessant debate over who authored Marvel Comics, was it Stan Lee or was it Jack Kirby? Like the above, the critics of the current crop have a tendency to look at the situation in a linear way. Since it is a "story," it must have an author, they reason. However, like Eco with his dissection of Casablanca, it needs to be seen as a conglomeration of accidents, any one of which on its own would not amount to much. The end result of these accidents, Lee at Marvel, Kirby at Marvel, the chance that an imitation of DC’s Justice League might sell a few books, was the simple idea that we have come to call "the Marvel style." Kirby, continually feeding the hungry production machine, needed a script but there wasn’t one ready. Lee improvised a "plot" for Kirby to take home, with the intention of inserting the dialogue after the fact. For the purpose of my thesis, the plot need not have been anything special, as the stories were all variations on a theme, whether they were monster stories or romance stories or westerns.

The literaries are inclined to debate whether the furnishing of a plot is enough of a claim to authorship, or whether the real writer in this case was the artist. Once the argument gets started it can go in any direction, and is just as likely to deny that a plot was ever given in the first place, because it is obligatory that everybody who wasn’t there have an opinion and take sides. None of that has ever mattered, as far as I’m concerned, though I acknowledge that the ownership of successful movie franchises could make a difference to this party or that. But the movies do not interest me and I do not care. None of them have ever captured the thing that made Marvel comics exciting to me in 1965 when I discovered them for myself.

That thing is only to be found in the actual old pages of the comics and it is what we would attempt to describe with the words "Marvel style." "Marvel style" is not just a different way of arriving at the same result, meaning a story in the literary sense, but a way of arriving at something different. The essence of this different thing tends to elude conventional literary analysis, so that the old Marvel comics attract a lot less respect these days. Here’s a page from Tales of Suspense #85, January 1967.

Two characters, Captain America and Batroc, are depicted and three others are mentioned. The others are Stan and Jack, the artist and writer, and the addressee, called "frantic one," being of course the reader. “The wise man knoweth when to speak and when to shuteth up! Sly Stan knows that no words of his can do justice to Jolly Jack’s great action scenes… And so…”  “See what we mean, frantic one?”  If our theoretical literary critics could bring themselves to contemplate the piece after such a delightfully disheveled piece of writing (you mean moronic, I hear Ng Suat Tong mutter in my inner ear), they might be inclined to discuss it in terms of "breaking the fourth wall," which would be the intrusion of a latter-day literary concept. Recognizing the artist in the text is hardly an innovation. There have always been cartoons with that happening, for example “Battler Herriman perches at the ringside and sees Jim Flynn win.”

What we’re looking at is in fact the return of a very old idea. The configuration, a page showing two figures in continual action, with the extreme casualness of the two captions, could only be arrived at by a method in which the art came first and the writer, in the parlance of another age, is "writing up to the pictures." This is exactly how it was done a couple of hundred years ago in illustrated storytelling, before Charles Dickens arrived on the scene with the intention of making a more serious literary enterprise of the writer’s craft. He then had to go to some trouble to change things around so that the words came first. I wrote about this on my blog a while back in relation to Pierce Egan’s Life in London (1822), quoting a passage, like this Marvel page, in which the text acknowledges the picture: “…we were assailed by some troublesome customers, and a turn up was the result, (as the Plate most accurately represents.)” (The writer then tells how he lost and then recovered the notes for the piece you are reading.)

The simple fact of putting the pictures before the words creates a lively spontaneity that comes across almost as improvisation. In a sense this is true; once stories start expanding over a number of issues, there’s no going back to fix what happened last month. We are made to feel that the work is being created while we watch, and that anything is possible. The logic of a worked out plot takes a back seat and bits of pictorial business are allowed to lead to other pictures, and so on. A comic put together this way feels quite different from one thoroughly plotted on a typewriter at the outset. The famous example of a result of working this way is the anecdote Lee has told of how the penciled pages of Fantastic Four #48 came in and as he sat down to dialogue them he noticed, amid the cosmic crackle, an oddly anomalous little character on a surfboard…

Now, I am cognizant of the fact that the multitude of kids reading that Captain America were just thinking about what Cap and Batroc were doing to each other. But for me this page, and others of a similar stripe, opened up a whole new different way of thinking about comics (I was nine; I’d been thinking about them for quite a few years). And many years later, when I was doing Bacchus, there was a period when I had a fellow writer helping me out. I always made it clear to him that I was happy to buy in writing but that once the pictures started going onto the paper everything could change and I reserved the right to rewrite it. (I wonder if that makes me a villain in the eyes of the literaries.) On one four-issue series I found that narrative logic, the hand I was holding at the given moment, dictated that all the villains had to be killed in the third issue. Indeed, the momentum of the pictures demanded it, something that couldn’t have been foreseen at the writing stage. My co-writer, for whom the villains still played a role in his synopsis for issue #4, argued that this was crazy, but sometimes there’s just no stopping the train. Issue #4 now had to find something better than villains

To bring things full circle, how does that Marvel comic stand up if you take away the pictures? It doesn’t. Does that make it worthless? The literaries would say undoubtedly. Wee Eddie Campbell would say it was an act of magic, the way the whole thing worked, with Stan and Jack, and the frantic one.

A long time ago, when comics started getting complicated and written continuity was needed, a job opened up for people who could write the stuff. I’m talking as long ago as 1920 and The Gumps, when cartoonist Sydney Smith started using the story suggestions of a traveling jewelry salesman named Sol Hess. Writing comics is a special skill quite different from writing prose. But before you take it all apart, ask: can you take the pictures out of a sports cartoon, or reduce a clown's circus performance to its plot? Can everything about a musical performance be conveyed in a stave of notes, or can everything about a film be known from its shooting script? Sometimes, while everybody else was watching the clock, the clown, the actor, the singer, the cartoonist, the writer even, because writers never have as much freedom as we think they have, have slipped their own story in between the tick and the tock.

If comics are any kind of art at all, it’s the art of ordinary people. With regard to Kurtzman’s war comics, don’t forget that the artists on those books were nearer to the real thing than you and I will ever be. Jack Davis and John Severin were stationed in the Pacific, Will Elder was at the liberation of Paris. Maybe we should pay attention to the details. Who knows what we’ll find there? The little bird on the machine gun may appear rather twee to your fine literary sensibilities, but that kid looks dead to me.


172 Responses to The Literaries

  1. patrick ford says:

    What I notice is there are people who argue comics should be held to the standards of the greatest literature, and the greatest of art. The odd thing about applying that kind of rarified standard is many of the people making it show up at other times very happily talking about their favorite television programs, entertaining novels and movies, pop music, and even saying some of those things are great. So you will see a person saying it’s more than a little embarrassing that E.C. or Thimble Theater, or Carl Barks, is held up as an example as the best in comics.
    These same attitudes are still found applied to illustration and pop music. There absolutely are people who laugh at the idea Elvis (or whatever pop musician you like) could seriously be compared to the great classical composers, or that the lyrics of pop songs can be compared to great poetry. And there absolutely are people who still would like to brick-up illustration inside a niche.
    The men who created the great comics were rarely pretentious men. Harvey Kurtzman told John Benson (1965):
    ” I don’t think there’s any great need for the comic strip to be artistic. I don’t resent the fact the medium has it’s restrictions. It is what it is. The restrictions are there…
    I approached the war stories with… what to tell kids about war.”

  2. Jeet Heer says:

    I agree with pretty much everything in this essay but I want to clarify one point: “Jeet Heer, in the comments following Gary Groth’s response to Mautner, shows more inclination to recognize the pictures, but he too, apologetically, wants to separate them from the package.” Like Eddie, I think comics are narrative drawings. Going a bit further I’d argue that the best comics are the ones where narrative and drawing are so seamless that they can’t be separated analytically: where the drawing is the narrative and the narrative is the drawing. In comic books that would be Eisner, Cole, Barks, Stanley, Kirby and Kurtzman (including Kurtzman plus contributors). But this sort of seamless narrative drawing doesn’t always exist. I confess that for me the poorer EC comics don’t work as narratives at all (either in conjuction with the text or even just as images that we can look at to get the story), although the pictures are nice to look at (and occasionally searing). So it’s not that I WANT to separate the pictures from drawings, but the incompetence of these comics as comics makes that separation occur.
    Speaking of narrative drawing, Eddie have you read Hatfield’s Kirby book. It goes into this (although it can be pushed much further).

  3. Right on! Sometimes it’s best to talk about the drawing and nothing else … in some of the best comix, the drawing is the real (or even only) story. But most comix criticism is by writers and the drawing escapes them at times.

    What we often have in comix criticism is the equivalent of literary critics analyzing the typography of a novel or an opera critic discussing the audience’s seating arrangements.

  4. patrick ford says:

    The EC books aside from Kurtzman working alone and Craig and Feldstein working alone, for the most part can hardly be described as seamless. There was absolutely a seam in the form of the pages coming to the artists with the Leroy Lettering already in place in the balloons and captions. Krigstein was allowed the liberty of ignoring the panel grid imposed on the other artists. Kurtzman of course provided detailed layouts to every artist who worked from his layout/scripts. And Kurtzman wanted the artists to follow his layouts exactly. Actually despite the imposed grid and the captions and balloons already being in place the EC artists had more flexibility working with Feldstein than they did under Kurtzman. In my opinion more artists working with Kurtzman should have just gone ahead and inked his layouts which is what Russ Heath did on the Plastic Sam story. When it comes to someone like Wally Wood, I like: HIS NEW STUFF BETTER.

  5. Francis Dawson says:

    Good piece.

    I think judging comics by the standard of ‘literature’ is a category error. It’s not difficult to see why this misapprehension has come about. Comics (often, not always) include words and we use terms like comic book and graphic novel. Comics, however, are a unique pictographic language with qualities intrinsic to itself. It’s an ugly coinage I know but I think a term like ‘comicky’ is preferable to ‘literary’ if we want to praise artistic self-awareness, control and achievement in work done in the comics form.

  6. Jim Keefe says:

    When analysis of the comics medium turns into pretentious pseudo-academic mumbo-jumbo because the writer is masturbating with a thesaurus I leave the room. What’s needed is more thought provoking examinations of the artform from someone who’s worked in the trenches – like Eddie Campbell.

  7. What we often have in comix criticism is the equivalent of literary critics analyzing the typography of a novel or an opera critic discussing the audience’s seating arrangements.

    Bring it on! Why not? :)

    Seriously, the typography of a novel can be pretty interesting, and the business of where an audience sits (or stands) in relation to onstage (or offstage) action, and how the audience therefore relates to what’s happening, or even becomes a part of what’s happening—that too can be interesting!

    But I take your larger point, Russ, and I’m sympathy with Eddie’s as well. Cartooning is narrative drawing (cue Thierry Groensteen here, from whom I cribbed in Hand of Fire), but it is also, most clearly, most immediately, drawing. Comics are not reducible to enunciable plots, or paraphrase-able subject matter and “content” (in the abstracted literary sense).

  8. Sasha Mak says:

    Comics are weird because they are a younger medium, but literature is not a fluid concept. Poetry for hundreds of years was the gold standard of literature. It wasn’t the novel and it wasn’t the short story. People were still debating in the 20th century whether or not the novel was a work of art, with dudes like T.S. Eliot in his assessment of Ulysses saying this thing destroyed the novel form because the novel form was something dated and obsolete that could not even at it’s very best offer verisimilitude with just text . Also, we have to consider how language changes literature and how it evolves or devolves with time. Western Canon is really messy if we put Canterbury Tales with Great Expectations or Crime and Punishment. It is a question of time and the time these things appear and what they have at their disposal. Comics have undergone shifts in language but it is a younger medium and a medium that isn’t properly cohesive in how we approach what makes a comic a good comic or a comic. Is it a historical document? Should we attack it like Harold Bloom or Northrop Frye? How do we uncover the authorship of the piece or should we have the author is dead rule when judging these things? Do we read it like a novel or do we read like painting. Do we do both?

  9. I think judging comics by the standard of ‘literature’ is a category error.

    It may be that judging literature by the standard of literature is also an error. In any case, “literature” is, or should be, a much wider, more plastic concept than what we usually mean when we talk about literariness.

  10. When analysis of the comics medium turns into pretentious pseudo-academic mumbo-jumbo because the writer is masturbating with a thesaurus I leave the room.

    Oh, come on. This comment seems so obviously territorial. Mumbo-jumbo has its place, and every field has its own kind. Forgive, and learn, eh?

  11. PS. I don’t know where I got that “Russ” from in the above. From toggling back and forth too quickly between screens and documents? In any case, my apologies to Mahendra Singh.

  12. Jim Keefe says:

    Having taught Comic Art (most recently at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design) – and seeing you’re a teacher as well, I respectfully make the distinction between informed academic analysis (which I enjoy) and pseudo-academic mumbo-jumbo. One enlightens and the other smells like the orifice it originates from.

  13. No offense taken … my name in Hindi might well translate as Russ … in any case, this essay by EC has really taken the bull by the horns and I’m glad of it.

    When you look at visual images, it’s always about the drawing in the end. Drawing is the god of the page, or otherwise, why not ditch the art, publish the story as a print novel and save some bucks & time?

    I like the opera/comix analogy. It ain’t over till the fat lady inks ;)

  14. R. Fiore says:

    If music didn’t include sounds would it stand up? If ice didn’t contain water would it stand up? Whole new vistas of meaningful discussion are opening here.

  15. Michael Hill says:

    What separates 9-year-old Eddie from 7-year-old Mike? My first comic was Cap 102; I look at the page above and see Stan defining a wise man, then proving he doesn’t qualify. (Pat, have you ever seen margin notes for that page?) Jack’s narrative drawing works best when Jack’s words are used to fill in the balloons… there’s a terrific example, an FF page, in the recent comments on the Kirby interview.

  16. Don Druid says:

    I agree – here’s a link to that comment with the FF page:


  17. Ayo says:

    Literature is not a value judgement. All of this stuff…ALL of it… is literature.

    The. End.

  18. patrick ford says:

    I don’t think breast implants are attractive.

  19. St. Jack says:

    One of the things that annoy me the most of the whole literary movement in Comics is that it’s a false pretense from the beginning- Literature is Written Word as Art; Comics are words and pictures, and therefore can never be Literature, nor should they have any pretension, or need for that matter, of being literature. When you point that out, people tend to see it as if one’s disregarding sequential art, which not only implies that they see comics as a minor form of storytelling which still needs validation from the elder arts, but more annoyingly and dangerously it implies that something being ‘literature’ means it’s ‘good’. Same as when they imply something being ‘art’ means ‘good’, it shows that a lot of people discussing comics nowadays are still blinded by archaic notions of art that end up tying us to conclusions that end up making no sense.

    As for the nature of comics as art and writing fused together, I was just thinking about something similar this week during a re-read of Watchmen, which is ‘the’ book considered as a literary novel in the more mainstream canon (as far as I can tell, maybe Maus too). What I noticed is that the level of craft the script had, the care for detail that can be seen in the composition, dialogue and such, I realized that it was like that because of the constant input between writer and artist all through the creative process, because the back and forth between two creators with similar but clearly distinct creative roles, made for a level of sophistication in the play between words and pictures that sterns purely from the nature of them. I think that’s a big strength of collaboration that shouldn’t be overlooked.

  20. Tony says:

    Not even when you’re not aware they’re implants?

  21. Robert Boyd says:

    In other words, pseudo-academic mumbo-jumbo is scholarly writing you don’t like and academic analysis is scholarly writing you like?

  22. R. Fiore says:

    Actually I have a somewhat more elaborate iteration of the Experience of Comics idea from a column I am working on, or perhaps more accurately ought to be working on, that might be of interest here:

    The Experience of Comics is a notion I half-baked some time ago to account for why comics strips can have a far greater aesthetic impact than their subject matter would imply. For example, at least five of those ten greatest newspaper comics strips cited above hardly ever expressed an idea that wasn’t trite, absurd or patently false. The outlandish coincidences of Dick Tracy, the utter escapism of Wash Tubbs, the cracker barrel philosophy of Little Orphan Annie, these are elements that in prose would not have gotten past the lowliest hack pulp editor. What sustains this substance is the experience of inhabiting the subjective world the cartoonist creates. The writer of poetry or prose however vivid his imagery must depend on the reader’s internal image of the things he describes. The cartoonist doesn’t merely describe a tree, he determines what trees look like. And so with every person and object in the cartoonist’s world. While a painter also creates a subjective world, a painting or drawing is not a narrative. Where a painting or drawing begins and ends in one image, by implication one comic strip panel could follow another into infinity. If the cartoonist’s subjective world is vivid enough all the narrative really has to do is be engaging enough to draw the reader into it. This is why bad writing will defeat even the most accomplished comic art. Rather than drawing you into the comic strip, bad writing pushes you out.

  23. patrick ford says:

    R. “bad writing pushes you out.”

    I absolutely does in my experience, and I’m not all that picky. I enjoy The Gumps, Wash Tubbs, and Annie a lot. They entertain me. Old comic books are not entertaining for the most part. Something like an old issue of Spider-Man or Hawkman is just brutal to try and read for me. It’s not worth the effort required to try and stay focused. I just look at the pictures.

  24. R. Fiore says:

    Little Orphan Annie and Wash Tubbs are on my list of the ten greatest newspaper comic strips. Which, if you’re interested, are in the following order: Krazy Kat, Little Nemo, Peanuts, Thimble Theater, Little Orphan Annie, Dick Tracy, Wash Tubbs, Skippy, Pogo and Li’l Abner.

  25. …literature is not a fluid concept.

    Gosh, everything you go on to say makes it sound pretty fluid to me!

  26. Literature is Written Word as Art; Comics are words and pictures, and therefore can never be Literature, nor should they have any pretension, or need for that matter, of being literature.

    Since literature includes visual poems, illustrated novels, picture books, and a great many other types of text in which the written word joins or clashes with pictures, I don’t believe this purist definition holds. And it never has, though plenty of teachers and critics allowed themselves to think so in the spirit of neoclassicism or modernism.

    My point: “literature” itself is a moving target, not a fixed standard.

  27. Robert Boyd says:

    Is Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald literature? Because it includes photos, and that’s confusing me because it is composed of words and pictures which if I understand you correctly can never be literature.

  28. patrick ford says:

    There are about fifty more. Forget art, just stick with “Is this even entertaining.”
    Prince Valiant is not great literature despite what Edward VIII said. It is an enjoyable read, and a great platform to admire Foster’s artwork. Something like The Viking Prince is not a good read. Really nice artwork by Kubert though.

  29. Geoff says:

    I’m with Eddie.

  30. Briany Najar says:

    Comes through the letterbox, goes in the recycling.

  31. Rod McKie says:

    I think what we tend to overlook, perhaps because of our overfamiliarity with the subject matter, is that not everyone can read comics. Having said that, I do believe that in some circles there is still a rigid belief in the primacy of the word, for all manner of cultural and religious reasons – and canonical reasons of power and control. But, where I once suspected that certain critics were pretending to be ‘graphically illiterate’ in order to demean the subject, I now suspect that there may be a germ of truth in their declarations. In an article for the Independent, Thomas Sutcliffe mentioned the ‘defiant pride’ some reviewers’ had exhibited when it came to discussing anything as lowly as a ‘graphic novel’ when he was chairing the BBC Radio 4 arts review programme, Saturday Review. On one show, two guests admitted to having real problems understanding comics, or graphic novels, and What made the declarations more shocking was the fact that the graphic novel they had trouble reading was by the darling of the literatti, the enobled Posey Simmonds. Without any shame at all, both declared, to everyone listening, that Posey’s Tamara Drewe, an updated version of Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, was impossible for them to read because it saw them perpetually tugged between the pictures and the text.

    On the same show, a week later, when discussing Zadie Smith’s anthology ‘The Book of Other People’, another guest didn’t know what to make of the contributions by Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware, because they “never know where to look first…(words or pictures)”. We have to ask ourselves why reviewers on a national show, declare they can’t read the work of multi-award winning author/illustrator/cartoonist Chris Ware, the man labelled ‘Smartest Cartoonist on Earth ‘ in an article by Andrew D.Arnold for Time Magazine as long ago as the year 2000. Of course it could be that they feel the need to decry anything that smacks of the vulgar modernity of pop culture, but it could just be that we need to do a better job of explaining to the uninitiated, how the various elements of comicbooks, the text, the typography, the colours, the drawings, all work together to tell a story.

  32. Jeet Heer says:

    For What it’s worth, my list: Krazy Kat, Peanuts, Little Nemo, Gasoline Alley, Thimble Theater, Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend, Little Orphan Annie, Barnaby, Polly and Her Pals, Wash Tubbs,

  33. Kairam Ahmed Hamdan says:

    Great post! But in movies, as well as in games and some other media, it’s the writer whose work is promptly dismissed. Analyzing art, especially collaborative endeavors (like all art is when we take the audience into account), into its constituting pieces is so passé. And wrong.

    Thanks Eddie.

  34. Stan. Right. Always with the Stan.

    Spare me.

  35. Allen Smith says:

    As I said in another context, taste is just taste, but you have good taste.

    Allen Smith

  36. patrick ford says:

    Kirby died on this day and Lee and his marching society are still shoveling dirt on him.

  37. Briany Najar says:

    Sounds like they’re disingenuously complaining about comics panels lacking the linearity of verbal language. I wonder if they’d say the same thing about a sculpture, “Oh, I didn’t know which bit to look at first so I just gave up.”

  38. Briany Najar says:

    This is why absolutely no-one in their right mind would ever consider communicating with any significant amount of people by combining a still image and a few written words simultaneously on the same rectangular support.
    That would never work, no-one would buy it and I’ve never seen it everywhere I go.

  39. patrick ford says:

    There are absolutely great strips which people don’t place on these lists because they haven’t been reprinted, and so they haven’t been read.
    Fred Opper’s HAPPY HOOLIGAN is slighted just because it’s out of view. Gluyas Williams was a brilliant writer and artist, but most people have not had the chance to read things like his various series strips like SNAPSHOTS OF A…
    SUBURBAN HEIGHTS, THE WORLD AT IT’S WORST. BARNEY GOOGLE is a real fine strip which gets no attention. There’s Harry Tuthill, Fontaine Fox, Gene Ahern. Ahern is a nice artist, but his writing is absolutely fantastic.

  40. R. Fiore says:

    I recall reading Happy Hooligan pages from the 1920s that I thought were really first rate. Barney Google is just bubbling under my Top Ten, and with Skippy getting the full honors it’s now the greatest strip without a comprehensive reprint, though racial caricature issues stand in the way. I adore Gluyas Williams as an illustrator and cartoonist but I’d have to read a lot more to pass on him as a newspaper strip cartoonist. Our Boarding House has always been a favorite of mine, even reading the really late version in the 1960s. What most of us know of Tuthill is Bill Blackbeard’s tireless advocacy. I think the best bet would be Library of American Comics doing one of those Essentials books on The Bungle Family. Now, I know this is total heresy, but I’ve long felt that Barnaby was less than meets the eye. I will have to take another look at it, of course.

  41. Sasha Mak says:

    Alright maybe not solid, I should say. Me bad at science/words.

  42. On filmmaking, Maya Deren said that film would become a true art when film could create experiences not subordinated to just telling a story. There are lots of ways to convey meaning besides storytelling, thing is most people are not really up to it; it´s more accesible to feel sad watching “Amour” rather than a Brackhage film. And I think it could apply to comics as well. But, if storytelling is the most common way to convey meaning in film, opera, theather and, yes, literature, well, people and critics and literaries of comics can assume they “study” them with relative easiness; it´s just about having lot´s of stuff on their library to back up whatever they spit off as criticism.

    So I think we shouldn´t blame the literarires for criticizing the way they do it; after all most comics main reason of being is telling a story and all the particularities of coincidence, magic, talent or any given bag of tricks of any author end up in the telling of a story. All those tricks Mckean uses in Mr. Punch? Well, he uses them to tell a story. All those funny lines Watterson uses for Calvin & Hobbes? Well, he also uses them to tell a story. Yes, some do it differently, others are risky and arty and most are banal as shit, but most of them use them to convey meaning through storytelling. And everybody at some point can relate to storytelling as everybody can relate to lyrics in pop music and it´s kind of easy to become a critic.: as I dare any Rolling Stone critic to speak about picht and volume or musical notation instead of just relating to melody and lyrics I would dare lots of comic book literaries to speak about line, volume, abstract representation, lettering, composition, etc.

  43. patrick ford says:

    Blackbeard did a BUNGLE FAMILY book for Hyperion back in the ’70s. I just checked and the thing is around two bills.
    I think you mean ROOM AND BOARD by the ’60s right? OUR BOARDING HOUSE was being done by a guy named Bill Freyse in the ’60s. He’d been doing it unsigned for a long time. When Ahern made like Crane and Caniff and jumped ship so he could own his own strip OUR BOARDING HOUSE kept rolling along. The syndicate apparently wouldn’t allow Freyse to sign it for years. I’ve had the Freyse strips sitting around for years. When I bought the Ahern strips I had to buy the whole run and that included decades of strips not by Ahern, but they were real cheap. The guy I bought them from told me he had a hard time giving OUR BOARDING HOUSE away.
    The Williams stuff which does get shown around tends to be his large illustrative type panels. He did a lot of other things though, and often the artwork would take a back seat in his text heavy strips.

  44. It’s disgusting. Lee created nothing except the myth that he created anything at all.

  45. Matt Kennedy says:

    Firstly, I commend Eddie Campbell on a fine essay. It was well researched, showed a great deal of vim and vigor and riled up the troops to comment. At least a handful of people felt strongly enough about it to respond, but much of the comments have traversed most of the points Mr. Campbell made and centered on the post-modern question of “Are comics literature?”

    It seems to me that the question is itself a canard. But the posters in this thread seem to have divided most distinctly over the perceived definition of “literature,” without really defining “comics.” Since there seem to only be two schools of thought about the “literature” definition, and since there are probably ten thousand opinions about what defines “comics” on a site called THE COMICS JOURNAL, I’ll concern myself with the former and not the latter.

    I think that the two primary opposing views about the definition of “literature” both have merit. I think that most laymen would accept St. Jack’s simplified explanation that “literature is written word as art,” but I feel that the spirit of Charles Hatfield’s view that literature is an ever-evolving form is a romantic one, and it’s nice to ponder things with a fluid spirit and without categorization. But if we let everyone develop their own definitions for pre-existing words, discussions of any topic will devolve to chaos. So I’ve gone and grabbed the definition from dictionary.com:

    [lit-er-uh-cher, -choor, li-truh-]
    1. writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features, as poetry, novels, history, biography, and essays.
    2. the entire body of writings of a specific language, period, people, etc.: the literature of England.
    3. the writings dealing with a particular subject: the literature of ornithology.
    4. the profession of a writer or author.
    5. literary work or production.

    It turns out that the definition is pretty loose. It’s certainly not as rigid as St. Jack’s simplified assertion (whether or not most people probably think that). It turns out that ALL comics from the latest BETTY & VERONICA to WATCHMEN qualify as “literature” under more than one of the definitions above, but WHO CARES? Comics are Comics, books are books, movies are movies, tv is tv. What necessity is there to quantify the values of any of these mediums by cross comparison? The need of people within the hobby of collecting, reading, or just enjoying comics for acceptance vis-a-vis an entirely other format is an indication of their shame about doing so. If you feel like comics are only valid if they qualify as literature, or that somehow your enjoyment of the ACME Novelty Library somehow trumps my enjoyment of Daredevil or someone else’s enjoyment of ZAP Comics, or anyone else’s enjoyment of Archie, you are mistaken. It’s nearly impossible to get most comicbook intellectuals to agree that superhero comics are as valid as Scott Pilgrim, so getting anyone outside the industry to validate your shameful attachment to funny books is foolish.

    And why do you care what they think?

    I love comics as a medium. I love Carl Barks’ funny animals, and Adrian Tomine’s slice of life, and Grant Morrison’s stream of consciousness, and Brian Michael Bendis’ mainstream but intelligent heroes, and Milo Manara’s erotica and the occasional Japanese manga, Italian fumetti, and French bande desinee. And my enjoyment of these things has never stopped me from paying my bills, getting laid or having a great life. What gets my goat about discussions like this is that they stink of private shame masquerading as intellectualism. Being a snob and having a degree issued by another snob will not make you right if you are wrong. And degree or no degree, your enjoyment of comics (if you truly enjoy them) should be the same regardless of your station in life. So embrace it! It’s words and pictures: love it! Or don’t, and go post at Sports Illustrated or Woman’s Day or wherever else, but find something that you love as much as I love comic books.

    If you need to wax redundant or over-intellectualize in order to appreciate comics, then you don’t appreciate comics–you appreciate the sound of your own voice. Sports, knitting or hookers could provide you the same inspiration and would likely provide elevated literary credential should you care to write down the resultant pontifications.

    Since this is the Journal, and since Harlan Ellison probably doesn’t give a shit about this thread, let me be the one to call Ng Suat Tong a bitter asshole, and let’s move on as though his opinion doesn’t matter. Because it doesn’t.

  46. Allen Smith says:

    The problem is not whether comics could be considered literature, the problem is can comics even be entertaining? As far as the corporate model now is concerned, the answer is no.

  47. Allen Smith says:

    Sorry Pat, didn’t see your earlier post. You stole my thunder, dagnabbit!

  48. St. Jack says:

    If it’s good, why do you care if it’s literature? I haven’t read that book, so I can’t make a judgement on whether it is or isn’t literature, but it belonging or not to the realm of literature should make no difference.
    The point is that literature, much like art, is an empty label when it comes to analyze a narrative piece. Something being or not being literature should in no example I can think of modify how you read it or analyse it. Comics are comics. If they are Art they’ll still be comics. If they’re literature they’ll still be comics. If they’re neither they’ll still be comics.

  49. Rob says:

    I think you’re right to say that we shouldn’t try to validate comics by comparing them to other mediums, and that we need to pay as much attention to art as story. Focusing on only one aspect of a hybrid form like comics fundamentally misunderstands it. Of course, we also need to not ignore writing in favour of the aesthetic, as a lot of film criticism does. Comics wouldn’t be worth much without their pictures, but they also wouldn’t be comics if there wasn’t a story. In that vein, I think it’s fair to question the quality (inasmuch as the abstract question of “quality” is worth talking about to begin with) of earlier comics which didn’t have as nuanced or well-developed writing, even if we value their dynamic art.

    While appealing to literature is one shortcut to critical respectability, another one is trying to establish an ossified canon of greats which contemporary artists can only aspire. To that extent I really value the recent debate about EC Comics. We need to be constantly re-examining these older texts, paying attention to what’s of value about them but also not putting them up on some pedestal. It goes against the way we’re used to talking about art, but it may be that the best comics are being published today instead of in some halcyon golden age.

  50. St. Jack says:

    You hit the nail in the head here, Matt. Comics are comics, and comics are mostly awesome, so let’s enjoy comics, discuss comics, and to hell with the rest of the world, and the pretentious silver tongues trying to get attention by being should get hit with Johnny Ryan’s W.G.A.S missile.
    I just wanted to point out, on my comment about the term literature itself, that if I support an antiquated use is because I consider it an antiquated word. I don’t think it should really be used in modern discussion anymore because it’s become too loaded, it has too many implications in the general populace. Too many people instantly relate “literature” with “good”, which ends up tainting the word, much like Art, although Art is much harder to cut down. That’s why I prefer to use Prose to refer to written word works of art (except for poems and all that jazz, it’s not a perfected system yet) and to use Narrations or something similar as a catch-all word for all mediums and disciplines in which a story is told. Narration is a much cleaner word, it has no implications, and it allows to compare prose stories and comics in their own terms, without literature throwing its weight and its age around.
    Of course, once again, the only thing that matters here is that EC comics are actually quite fantastic no matter what the asshats think. Jack Davis for life.

  51. Briany Najar says:

    People keep on referring to story/plot/narrative as a universal given in both literature and comics. I think this is possibly a received inference coming from a literature-first cultural education. Even so, fiction can operate without plotline, and so can comics.

  52. Kim Thompson says:

    I think the year in which VERTIGO is crowned the greatest movie ever made by critical consensus, the “Literaries” in all fields (except maybe the literary one) may need to fold their tents and go home. Complaining that a comic is no good because the story is no good is like complaining that water isn’t a good liquid because because oxygen isn’t wet. Bravo, Mr. Campbell.

    “There’s no reason why a story has to be like a house, with a door to go in, windows to look at the trees outside and a chimney to let smoke out… We can imagine a story like an elephant, like a wheat field or the flame of a match.” —Moebius

  53. Eddie Campbell says:

    Thank you, Mr. Thompson, that was very good.

  54. Jeet Heer says:

    This is all far off topic from Eddie Campbell and EC Comics, but for anyone who cares: aside from my top 10, there are at least another dozen or strips that could make the top ten if the mood is right. I’ve read the early Happy Hooligan; it’s good but doesn’t strike me as quite reaching the level of a Thimble Theater. But I need to read the later stuff. Barney Google is potential top 10. Also Gottfredson’s Mickey Mouse (a bit shallow but entertaining). Some of the strips R. Fiore had in his top 10 but I didn’t put in mine are also great (I mean Dick Tracey). Terry and the Pirates from the late 1930s to the early 1940s — what a wonderful novelistic strip. I’ve read the Hyperion Bungle Family collection — that’s a fine strip too. About Barnaby — it’s the missing link between Skippy and Peanuts; also has the best writing (in terms of wit & sophistication) of any strip before Peanuts.

  55. R. Fiore says:

    The version of Our Boarding House I knew when I was growing up was the tail end of the Freyse version. I never saw the original Ahern version until Algrove Press came out with their collection in 2005, now out of print.

  56. Travis McGee says:

    I don’t know … putting aside the Ng Suat Tong example, which feels like a straw man to me, I don’t see what’s problematic about having a negative response to a comic based on its textual and narrative elements – after all, comics, in an abstracted sense, are a collection of symbols – why isn’t it appropriate to consider one group of these symbols – the words – worthy of critical attention?

    I guess this points to my mistrust of aesthetics – I think a critical stance on what comics or any medium ‘ought’ to be is interesting in so far that it can help us to understand a particular artist’s work, and can be a springboard for other artists, but not very interesting as a factual, ‘true’ description of a medium. In that sense, I don’t have a problem with the notion of ‘literary’ comics – although I think maybe it’s important to avoid confusion between a ‘standard of literature’ and ‘literary standards’ – the difference between whether a comic work stands up to a critical framework associated with literature, and whether it has some of the features we identify with a certain style and form of work – seriousness of intent and ambition, psychological insight, complexity of the vision it presents of the world, etc … Perhaps the first leads to the kind of dead-end comparisons with Erasmus and Aristophanes, but I think the second has lead to some of the most exciting comics work I’ve read (Fabrice Neaud is the most obvious example of this that comes to mind).

    (curiously I’ve always read Eddie Campbell as having ambition towards the latter in his first few works – particularly King Canute Crowd- before his priorities seemed to shift elsewhere, but admittedly I may be projecting that on to the work, since I’m just speculating at intent)

  57. Actually, the correct order is Little Nemo, Krazy Kat, Pogo, Little Orphan Annie, Thimble Theater, Terry and the Pirates, Mickey Mouse, Prince Valiant, Wash Tubbs/Captain Easy, and Feiffer. You’re wrong, sir, wrong!

    (with all due caveats about overlooking strips I haven’t read…)

    On topic: the line about “lunch hour with the immortals on Parnassus” is a real corker.

  58. [applause]

  59. Anthony Thorne says:

    A lovely essay. Just throwing it out there that if anyone, Fanta, whoever, decided to release a compilation of all Eddie Campbell’s essays from TCJ and elsewhere, I’d be buying it as a priority.

  60. Excellent excellent excellent! Eddie I thank you from the bottem of my little artist and art historian heart. This tendency which you critique has been so often so difficult to contradict. I will be using your essay in the future and often. There are comics that are lit, comics that are fine art, comics that are comics and comics that are all possible combinations of these. But mostly, and in the highest quality cases — to my eye — they are chiefly visual, sequential art. That can be narrative, but doesn’t even need to be so. Poetry is often sequential, yet non-narrative, and yet still great. Comics is its own medium. A “mongrel” perhaps, as philosopher David Carrier has pointed out (as a compliment, btw), yet its own. The question should be whether, within its own terms, the best comics equal in quality the best literature, the best poetry, the best fine art, the best films and so on (each of them in their own terms as well). And that can be turned around in alldirections. And the answer is clearly “yes”!

  61. Robert Boyd says:

    Actually I don’t care one way or another–but you made a hard and fast distinction, and Austerlitz strikes me as a work that almost any educated reader would describe as literature which doesn’t fit in your definition: “Literature is Written Word as Art; Comics are words and pictures, and therefore can never be Literature.”

  62. Pingback: Must Read: The Literaries

  63. I’m not so sure this is a negligible complaint. When I started dating my girlfriend a few years ago, she didn’t really understand how to read comics, and neither did her three year-old son. Since I’ve been reading them since I was three, this seemed impossible to me.

    But when you see a poster at a bus stop, you don’t “read” it by starting in the top left and working your way to the bottom right, you register the image first (or if it’s type-dominant, you register that first), then go on to the details. Given how comics pages are often designed with a dominant image in one panel–I’m doing a page now where the biggest, most significant panel is panel five–surrounded by other smaller images, I can understand why someone might not know the “rule” of left to right, top to bottom.

    Particularly with Chris Ware’s work–and I love his work more than just about any other cartoonist–but there is a lot going on there. Think of those diagrammatic pages where he does a central image with lines shooting off showing things in the past, the conception of the main character, the main character’s parents meeting, etc. Those are brilliant, but if the form was intimidating or confusing to you to begin with, they’d be might hard to decipher.

  64. Oh shut up already. God, you’re like anti-abortion protesters.

  65. Dominick Grace says:

    I’ve been reading comics for over 40 years and STILL find them hard to decipher, sometimes….

  66. Same here–it’s something I’m constantly careful about when doing my own work.

    And when reading superhero comics, often the story is so confusing and the result of many hands–writer, editor, editorial directive involving several writers plotting a company “event”–all before it even gets to the artist. If I were an average person–or for that matter, even I had a PhD in literature–sussing them out can be really tough.

  67. Sam Henderson says:

    Wait, wait: Travis McGee reads Eddie Campbell? How did I miss that? And how does he have an internet connection living on a houseboat?

  68. Tony P says:

    beautiful. so glad that Mr. Campbell continues to share his thinking about comics, his blog was a favorite.

  69. Aaron Kashtan says:

    Some great examples of literary criticism that considers typography are Johanna Drucker’s The Visible Word and Katherine Hayles’s Electronic Literature and Writing Machines.

  70. Geoff says:

    Truly excellent essay, which I, like Mark Staff Brandl, will keep around awhile -and will very likely use in the classroom. Much has been said that I can only second (or third). I’m with you guys, Eddie Campbell, Kim Thompson, Mark Brandl, Matt Kennedy. Well said. I think The Literaries should be sentenced to several years worth of painting crits in art school.

  71. Dominick grace says:

    Well, it’s not a given, but surely it applies in the vast majority of cases?

  72. Patrick and James–

    I spoke a little harshly with the “anti-abortion” comment. What I was TRYING to say was basically that this article had nothing to do with Lee and Kirby in substance, and so your beating the “Stan Lee created nothing!” drum–regardless of its merits–is off-topic and out of place.

    So I apologize for the language I used.

  73. Liam Otten says:

    Bravo, Mr. Campbell.

    Lately the “literary vs. genre” debate has been rearing its hydra-like head in a number of contexts. Here’s Arthur Krystal in The New Yorker:

    And New York Times film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis:

    Personally, I find these definitional debates tiring. I don’t care how or why we update the marquee, so long as Jaime Hernandez gets equal billing with Tennessee Williams. But I don’t believe that I’ve ever seen anyone jiu-jitsu what I think of as the formalist argument—that a work’s intellectual and emotional impact can be divorced from its story or plot—quite as deftly.

    Billie Holiday. Exactly right.

  74. R. Fiore says:

    Art is a full time job and it doesn’t put food in your mouth. Therefore, above a certain point, it has to be paid for. Throughout most of history you had either art that was paid for by a rich man or a king or a cardinal, or art that wasn’t paid for – whistling, granny telling stories. In the middle, there’s the kind of art that’s paid for by tips, usually performance, often jackleg versions of rich man’s art. Beginning in the 18th century this starts to change, and in the last 150 years you see the proliferation of a sort of para-art existing alongside what we’ve always called art. One characteristic of this material is that it increasingly incorporates motivations that are not strictly altruistic, and at times a cynicism that borders on criminal. (EC Comics, which are under discussion here, were practically run out of town on a rail.) Much of it is made with no other motivation first and last than to make a buck. Much of it was created without the expectation that it would survive beyond the month or the week or even the day it was put on sale, and turned out to be preserved anyway. Some of this para-art rises to the level of what we’ve always called art, which makes it simple. Some of it will perish as promised, which makes it simpler still. But some of it is going to remain a part of the inner life of civilization without being what we’ve always called art, and we’ve not fully processed what place it’s going to have. To say “this isn’t art” or “this isn’t literature” might very well be true without really dealing with what it is.

  75. patrick ford says:

    Matthew, No worries. I assume the comment by James R. Smith was prompted by the Eddie saying Stan Lee’s communication with his Marching Society, calling them “frantic ones” was magical. Those Frantic Ones remain exceptionally frantic even after all these years, so there is some kind of magic there. If a person is not a Real Frantic One, and never was they probably look at the two captions on that page and wonder what the hell the Real Frantic Ones see in them.

    ““The wise man knoweth when to speak and when to shuteth up! Sly Stan knows that no words of his can do justice to Jolly Jack’s great action scenes… And so…” “See what we mean, frantic one?”

  76. patrick ford says:

    And, yes I can read, I can take a hint, and I can anticipate comments about knowing when to shut up, it’s okay.

  77. Briany Najar says:

    Whether it’s a poster, a mind-map, a sculpture, a painting, a public space or a comic, surely you just start somewhere, go through some of it, find a few connections, and build on whatever internal logic that seems to present itself – usually with a hefty degree of reliance on memory, sometimes advice, even. That’s what we’re doing all the time anyway; that’s one of the ways a piece of art’s structure can speak to general experience.
    The narrative contents of those flow-chart pages by Chris Ware aren’t revealed by reading left-to-right, top-to-bottom are they? The eye wanders, picks out lines, follows paths until all are exhausted, and a picture of a story forms in the mind – a story whose temporal/causal order is not necessarily the order in which its components were discovered by the gazer.
    On such an abstract level, comics can indeed be likened to literature, but no more than they can be likened to architecture, music, dreaming, remembering, or any other method by which we make our minds up.

  78. Briany Najar says:

    But it’s optional. There’s a common assumption that all the devices and techniques used in comics are unified by their dedicated function in service to storytelling.
    I can only agree with that on the condition that the term ‘storytelling’ is allowed to be stripped of any persistent referential meaning.
    It’s possible to look at anything and say it tells a story – that doesn’t mean stories are the purpose of everything, and it doesn’t mean that every story perceived or inferred is actually explicable in prosaic terms; it just means humans are loopy in the head.

  79. Allen Smith says:

    The trouble is, in that quote of Stan’s about knowing when to shut up, he isn’t shutting up. He’s calling attention to himself.

  80. Allen Smith says:

    Not a thing wrong with James R. beating the “Stan created nothing” drum. I’ve read more than one fan stating that Stan saved the comics industry. ‘Nuff said, effendi?

  81. Kim Thompson says:

    It’s not impossible both are true. Lee’s achievements as an editor, packager, and shill might have “saved” the comics industry by revitalizing the stolid super-hero comic-book format (and basically creating the modern fandom that carried the field through its utter collapse as a genuinely popular medium) even though he didn’t really create any of the work per se.

  82. Allen Smith says:

    “Might have” is the polite way of putting it. If he wasn’t the one creating most of the work, then he didn’t really do it. Give Stan this: he lucked onto an audience that would buy what he was selling, and played it for all it was worth.

  83. Kim Thompson says:

    Yeah, but if Mort Weisinger (or anyone else) had had the services of Kirby, Ditko, Heck, Romita, Colan, etc., etc., would he have put together the creative juggernaut that was the 1960s Marvel Universe? I’m totally cool with torpedoing Lee’s absurd claims of having “co-created” or “written” all those Marvel comics, and his smarminess and ego make my skin crawl as much as anyone, but to deny his achievements as a wrangler/administrator/guiding hand seems more like I-just-hate-this-guy vengefulness than a reasonable, dispassionate appraisal of what he actually did do.

  84. R. Fiore says:

    You know this only ends when somebody gets tired, don’t you? My first rule of Internet arguments: If you find yourself repeating yourself, don’t. (He says, repeating himself.)

  85. patrick ford says:

    Kim Thompson, Has a valid point that Lee/Marvel (and to me Marvel is Lee) might have saved the comic book industry (mainstream comic books).
    In the ’60s Marvel did not sell amazingly well, and by 1968 when they were able to considerably expand the number of titles they were publishing (New corporate parent Perfect Film had it’s own distribution arm) their sales, which had been gradually climbing in a falling marketplace, headed south joining the trend line of the rest of the industry.
    Why had Marvel been picking up readers as DC was losing them? Certainly because of Lee and the ’60s version of the EC Fan-Addicts. Very much like EC Marvel had a fairly small line with a single voice communicating with it’s fans. Fans were encouraged to embrace the entire line, and in many cases they did. Fans felt they were part of a club. If you didn’t cut it on the football team, or want to join the Boy Scouts you could still be part of the Marvel family. Outside of major metropolitan areas I really don’t think comic books were considered remotely cool by kids in the ’60s, but Lee told his fans it was okay to read Marvel comic books because his books were read by college students and contained “words of more than two syllables.” In private (as quoted in Sean Howe’s book) Lee was saying he could not imagine an adult reading a comic book.
    I don’t agree Marvel had a superior line up of talent like EC did. Aside from Kirby and Ditko (who also worked for Charlton and DC) Marvel’s contingent of artists was in no way superior to DCs as far as I can see. To me someone like Romita is a decent artist no better than Mike Sekowsky or Ross Andru.

    Lee’s persona was so effective and built up such fierce loyalty which is still in evidence today. And even people who grew away from the Lee-Bag Party loyalty oaths often have roots in the Marching Society.(middle name second column).
    By 1975 the industry looked to be on it’s last legs. Both Roy Thomas and Jim Shooter have said in interviews that if not for the tremendous success of the licensed intellectual property STAR WARS the company might have closed up shop on comic book production. Not much later the Direct Market became the major comic book marketplace, and it was there where Marvel under the direction of Shooter to an extent Lee became the biggest player in mainstream comic books.
    So there was a lingering, dwindling fan base from the ’60s, and a second fan base built up under Shooter in the late ’70s early ’80s, and without Marvel the Direct Market and mainstream comic books probably would have died out. The caveat there is STAR WARS without which there is a pretty good chance Marvel might have dried up and been nearly forgotten, much in the same way Barney Google or The Gumps have been more or less forgotten.
    I think the role Kirby played is he created the characters and then turned his finished stories over to Lee who took them and edited/rewrote them. This went well beyond dialogue, Lee is know to have consistently altered the plots to make them more commercial. So without Kirby there would not have been any of the characters associated with Kirby,and Marvel probably would have died in 1958-59.

    Dick Ayers: Things started to get really bad in1958. One day when I went in Stan looked at me and said,”Gee whiz, my uncle goes by and he doesn’t even say hello to me.” He meant Martin Goodman. And he proceeds to tell me, “You know, it’s like a sinking ship and we’re the rats, and we’ve got to get off.” When I told Stan I was going to work for the post office, he said, “Before you do that let me send you something that you’ll ink.”
    Roy Thomas: You started doing a lot of Monster stories over Jack, didn’t you?
    Ayers: “Oh, then I got rolling on that, yeah.”

    So Lee sensed Martin Goodman was thinking about closing down Atlas in 1958. Just as it appeared that this might in fact happen Kirby walks in as Lee sits forlorn in a small office with the large bullpen of the early ’50s dissolved, the drawing tables removed, Lee alone in a one man alcove without so much as a secretary. Shortly thereafter…”Oh, then I got rolling..” to quote Ayers.

    Kirby was the catalyst Lee took things from there. Like I said though, the ’60s were not really a good time for comic books and they were on deaths door by 1975. Comic books weren’t wanted on newsstands and have not been a mass media for a long time. Even those huge sales numbers in the ’80s are very deceptive. I’m sure most people who were in a comic book shop at that time remember seeing investors with foot high stacks of the X-Men or what ever was “hot.” Today even with the huge money surrounding the movies, if it were not for those movies almost no one would know who Iron-Man was. Mainstream comic books are selling at close to historic lows.
    Lee has become kind of like Ronald McDonald or Betty Crocker, if he didn’t exist they would have to invent him.

    Personally I don’t care if Lee gets all the credit for the published Marvel comic books. I simply think Kirby should be credited and his heirs compensated for what Kirby did. Which was create characters and original plot elements on spec in his basement and then offer them for sale to Goodman via Lee. The copyright claim attached to the published comic books is based on the printed comic book being the end product of the work Kirby created alone and then turned over to Lee. And if you notice Lee’s claim is exactly the same as Kirby’s, and it’s because Lee’s often repeated idea of the creator (the guy who thought up the ideas) is a key component of copyright law.

  86. mateor says:

    Thanks Eddie. I also had this argument with the Hooded Utilitarian guys, a friendly one. They offered me space in which to present my view, which I was to put to use in a discussion of glamourpuss (Issue 7 had just come out). Unfortunately, I got locked up again before I could get it to print…

    I figured good luck comparing glamourpuss to anything other than itself, while also leaving the genre vs. literature debate for those with a sterner stomach. Fucking police, man.

  87. R. Fiore says:

    But is “Lee/Marvel saved the comic book industry” accurate? Isn’t what really happened that DC had revived the superhero, and Marvel, initially following the trend, came to overshadow them? DC continued to outsell Marvel through much of the 60s, and it was stimulated by TV success. If Marvel hadn’t happened what you might have is a lower level revival of the superhero dominated by DC.

  88. Eddie Campbell says:

    “But some of it is going to remain a part of the inner life of civilization without being what we’ve always called art, and we’ve not fully processed what place it’s going to have. “

    I’m going to have to quote you again.

  89. R. Fiore says:

    A kind of side point brought up by the subject of Billie Holliday: For a while there was a folk belief that black singers were given second-rate repertoire — Bing Crosby gets Gershwin and Billie Holliday gets “Here It Is Tomorrow Again.” Closer study revealed that this wasn’t the case; the substandard material jazz singers were singing were just the crummy pop songs of the day, preserved now only because a Billie Holliday sung them. You can see the process if you compare Frank Sinatra’s Capitol albums, where he was essentially developing the catalog of show tunes into a body of art song, and his Capitol singles, which were contemporary pop songs trying to make the Hit Parade.

    Fats Waller became such a master of the send-up that I think at times A&R men might have given him corny material to play to this talent — “Tom’ll really tear this to pieces” — and Waller resented it a bit now and then.

  90. Eddie Campbell says:

    Yes, that’s true. We have more of a record of people like Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman openly complaining about the stuff they had to play.

  91. Francis Dawson says:

    I don’t understand the reference to Vertigo. The story element of Vertigo is pretty compelling, no?

  92. patrick ford says:

    It’s at least possible the Direct Market would not have worked without Marvel. More likely as R. says if there had not been a Marvel DC would have sold better than it did in the ’60s. My guess is Marvel did not bring in loads of new readers so much as it was slowly draining readers from DC. Still the industry sales were over all going down, down, down all through the ’60s into the ’70s, so for me it was not a revival, but a slow fade. Kids were finding other things to do. Television in particular was becoming tremendously popular.
    If you look at sales the core group of Superman titles outsold Marvel all through the ’60s and Superman was still selling better than Spiderman well into the ’70s, and there was a popular Superman movie right around the time of STAR WARS. It’s possible that just like ARCHIE, DC might have survived on in retail stores. The comic book industry has come to be thought of as super hero comics and the Direct Market, but Archie was big in the ’60s and is still rolling along apparently making money despite never having been a factor in the Direct Market.

  93. Bill says:

    Entertaining is such a subjective term. Some people can be entertained by reading comments about how nothing is entertaining

  94. Bill says:

    BTW Count me among those that consider BACCHUS and FROM HELL as entertaining.

  95. mateor says:

    I actually just read From Hell again this month. Reading that (and my old copies of early New Mutants) when I was 14 was what first taught me that the the artist could add more than the writer. Before that, I thought that Fabian Nicieza was the best creator in comics (because I thought he created the story in X-Force, natch).

    I also thought that “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” was a single issue story, and really admired the chutzpah of ending it with him crying over dead friends. Naive, and secretly a huge Rob Liefield fan.

  96. steve block says:

    Don’t know what you paid Mr Campbell for this piece, but you should double it, and pay Mr Fiore the same.

  97. I think the point is that pretty pictures makes any analysis of the quality of the story irrelevant, even when the pictures are narrative. But I agree that Vertigo is narratively compelling — could even be a compelling book (haha) — and that any analysis of the quality of images and sound are going to have to be related to that story if one is evaluating the overall movie. If the movie, or comic, isn’t saying anything particularly insightful about its subject, remains trite no matter how pretty the pictures, it fails at being good narrative art (which was, I believe, what Ng was getting at). But one could still appreciate how pretty the pictures are, like focusing on a bird on the end of a rifle belonging to a dead soldier.

  98. Comic art collector says:

    My takeaway is that Ng Suat Tong questions the worship bestowed by comics fans on EC. In no way do I sense that he is a comics “hater”. Quite the opposite, in fact. He likes comics enough, and regards the art highly enough, to collect original comic art:


    Which includes EC art:


    As well as Eddie Campbell art (he’s a fan, Eddie!):


    Looking over his varied, eclectic collection, this is one well-read comics FAN. He just doesn’t agree that ECs are amongst the best of the medium. It’s just an opinion.

  99. patrick ford says:

    Look, the article first showed up in TCJ #250 (a strong contender for best issue ever) back in 2003. The latest excitement has to do with comic book land intrigue.
    BTW that issue features the great Gary Panter whose work is probably viewed with outright contempt by most people who think Frank Frazetta rivals Rembrandt.

  100. Pingback: Something for the Weekend | The Casual Optimist

  101. Briany Najar says:


    1. Vertigo took the crown from Citizen Kane, a more literary work, wouldn’t you say?

    2. The bird would not be sitting there if the soldier was alive.
    Seeing the bird there evokes stillness, an aftermath, as Kurt Vonnegut later wrote:

    “Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.
    And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-weet?”

  102. R. Fiore says:

    Vertigo was based on a novel, Citizen Kane was an original screenplay.

    Myself, I don’t even consider Vertigo to be the best Hitchcock.

  103. Briany Najar says:

    But based on the films themselves, which seems more literary?
    (In terms of language, intertextuality, allusion, structural integrity (ok, that one’s from architecture) etc.)
    It’s not the novel, Vertigo, that’s getting the recognition, it’s the film.

  104. Briany Najar says:

    “Be not righteous over much; neither make thyself over wise”

  105. Eddie Campbell says:

    Comic art collector wrote: “He just doesn’t agree that ECs are amongst the best of the medium.”

    That’s right. I don’t necessarily disagree with him, though its not something I would be bothered to argue about as I can’t see what could be gained by it (there is even less to be gained in the Lee-Kirby argument). I was addressing the problem of the way comics are written about, and the criteria used to assess them.

    Briany wrote: 2. The bird would not be sitting there if the soldier was alive.
    Seeing the bird there evokes stillness, an aftermath, as Kurt Vonnegut later wrote:
    “Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.
    And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like “Poo-tee-weet?”

    This is a good way to talk about the picture I posted. It’s not stuck on where the story is going or whether it is worth reading, and the quotation it tells me something I didn’t already know. I go away from this critique with more than I came to it.

  106. Eddie Campbell says:

    furthermore, Hill 203 as a whole isn’t half as interesting as that one picture. Does this matter to me? Not really. I’ve lived too long and traveled too far to care about a comic book story. My collection is full of fragments. Our culture is full of bits. A Bix Beiderbeck solo in the middle of a forgettable song, a sculptural decoration on an otherwise commonplace building, a quip by Groucho Marx.
    Comics criticism is too concerned with the destination when it could be enjoying the journey.

  107. Eddie Campbell says:

    … an episode of a tv series that seems to be better written than the one before it and the one after it. maybe it was the presence of the guest actor that elevated it. I remember once loving an episode of Ironside because Benny Carter wrote the incidental music for it. (He only did two episodes if I remember correctly)

  108. Bill says:

    I agree. Focus on what you enjoy instead endlessly picking scabs.

  109. steven samuels says:

    ” The question should be whether, within its own terms, the best comics equal in quality the best literature, the best poetry, the best fine art, the best films and so on… And the answer is clearly “yes”!”

    The answer is clearly no. There’s almost nothing in American comics that compares to “The Seven Samurai,” “Anna Karenina,” a Picasso painting, Shakespeare’s sonnets or Ornette Coleman’s “Free Jazz.”

    Maybe it’s ridiculous to compare like many here are saying. But hey, you brought it up.

  110. Briany Najar says:

    “There’s almost nothing in American comics that compares to …”

    Are you saying that comics from America are particularly bad?
    Seems a bit harsh. Maybe you’re just not familiar enough with the vernacular of American narrative art.

    I think the “within its own terms” bit of the comment you were responding to must have got lost somewhere.
    Trying to compare a comic to Free Jazz would be nutty. Could be fun, though.

  111. Briany Najar says:

    Glad you liked it. I couldn’t help but notice the correspondence between the birdy on the gun and the ones Vonnegut discusses in Slaughterhouse Five, which is where that quote came from.
    The quote about not being over wise is from Ecclesiastes but I had in mind (somewhat secretly) its deployment by George Orwell in that article about Donald McGill’s joke postcards. (I’m pretty sure a bit of it was quoted on this site or somewhere similar in the last few months.) It’s a good read and might well be of interest to fans of Johnny Ryan, Ivan Brunetti’s gag cartoons, or any other especially low-brow type of humourous material.
    It’s online here:
    along with the essay he wrote about the kind of story papers that Billy Bunter (y’know, from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) originated in:
    He mainly concerns himself with the embedded social and cultural themes and how they relate to the intended readership. If only he’d done one about comics.

  112. steven samuels says:

    ” I don’t care how or why we update the marquee, so long as Jaime Hernandez gets equal billing with Tennessee Williams.”

    Waitaminit. I thought it was the “literaries” who were demanding that comics be compared to literature. I see. So it’s only ok to compare between the two if one agrees beforehand that [insert your favorite comics artist] is automatically equal in artistic value to [insert your favorite literary author].

    But hold on here. There’s some wrinkles to be found here. Tennessee Williams’ plays have been discussed and analyzed every which way for decades. His best work holds up as well as ever. Could the same be said about the best of Jaime’s work several years down the line? I seriously doubt it. It’s a silly comparison anyway. Tennessee aimed much higher than Jaime ever has or probably will. Truly apples and oranges.

  113. steven samuels says:

    “BTW that issue features the great Gary Panter whose work is probably viewed with outright contempt by most people who think Frank Frazetta rivals Rembrandt.”

    I view both Panter and Frazetta with contempt. Ok, the former not so much but at the very least indifference. It’s just not my thing.

  114. patrick ford says:

    I like both, although I like Frazetta less and less with each passing year. I’ll always respect his inking technique, and the evident passion in his work. Panter I loved the first time I saw his work in RAW. At the time it reminded me of Mark Marek who did a sensational book called HERCULES AMONG THE NORTH AMERICANS.

  115. patrick ford says:

    The SEVEN SAMURAI is a great movie. It’s also a movie which is about on the level of a good solid comic book in a lot of ways. I love the film and have seen it many times. It’s basically cartoonish (which is a reason I like it so much). Picasso could also be described as cartoonish. Picasso is in my opinion right up there with the greatest artists who ever lived. My experience is people who talk about Shakespeare and Proust, Tolstoy, and Joyce, have not read anything by them ever, or at least since college or high-school. As Eddie pointed out improvisation is an art in itself and a place where commercial deadline driven comic books are an interesting comparison. The pressure of deadlines has long impressed me as defining cartoonists working under deadlines as doing something somewhat similar to live musical performance. In a sense something produced without a deadline like ASTERIOS POLYP could be seen as composition and a carefully edited performance with multiple takes patched together with careful consideration. A person writing and drawing 50 or 80 pages a month is letting it all hang out in a very raw way. The work ought to be seen in that context, there are happy accidents in live performances. It’s more true to living, and one of the most interesting things about live music or “live” writing and drawing. I can imagine a cartooning three point shooting contest where Chris Ware, David Mazzucchelli, and Art Spiegelman, are in a room with with Carl Barks and Barks looks around and says, “I’m just wondering who is going to finish second.”

  116. R. Fiore says:

    This is a vexed comparison because Jaime has never been popular on a broad scale the way Tennessee Williams has, before you even get to the question of artistic stature. Williams pulls off the hat trick — besides being one of the five greatest playwrights of the American stage, his best plays are simultaneously serious art, broadly popular, and a part of folklore. Stanley Kowalski and Blanche DuBois are national archetypes. A more appropriate comparison and a more difficult call would be Tennessee Williams and George Herriman. (There’s even a mutual New Orleans connection.)

  117. steven samuels says:

    “Are you saying that comics from America are particularly bad?”

    Most of them, yes. I’m thinking of comic books specifically. I don’t think there’s anything controversial about that.

    It kind of nutty to compare across artistic fields. On the other hand, though, I think a lot of people would agree that the “comics canon” such as it is pales to the “canons” of other artistic fields. At least at this point in time.

  118. steven samuels says:

    “It is kind of nutty to compare across artistic fields.”

  119. steven samuels says:

    Yes, fair enough.

  120. steven samuels says:

    I was meaning to check out Marek after seeing his work in 1990’s “The Best Comics of the Decade.” Thanks for the reminder. He doesn’t seem to get name checked that much these days.

  121. steven samuels says:

    A lot to comment about here. Ng’s review was published in the Comics Journal a decade ago. It’s pretty representative of the type of criticism TCJ has published over the years, at least to my mind. Why isn’t it ok to criticize the sacred cows the way many other comics have been over the years?

  122. Mike Hunter says:

    Travis McGee says:

    …I don’t see what’s problematic about having a negative response to a comic based on its textual and narrative elements – after all, comics, in an abstracted sense, are a collection of symbols – why isn’t it appropriate to consider one group of these symbols – the words – worthy of critical attention?

    By all means, those factors are important. Meriting critical interest, and hosannas or razzberries where due.

    However, the overall reaction here is against the attitude which dismisses the totality of the work, condemns the gestalt


    …a configuration or pattern of elements so unified as a whole that it cannot be described merely as a sum of its parts.

    [ http://www.thefreedictionary.com/gestalt ]

    …because some parts in isolation may not be great.

    Hooray for the Web! I sought, and it provided, the perfect example of that attitude, as lodged in my cobwebbed memory. From Dave Berg:


    Re the damning of a work because it may not have certain admirable qualities, am reminded of a friend of critic John Simon, who upon leaving a performance of “Macbeth,” would loudly announce, “It’s good, but it’s not ‘Oklahoma!'” Then, exiting a performance of the famed musical, would call out, “It’s good, but it’s not ‘Macbeth’!”

    Does it make sense to criticize a gloomy drama by the exact same standards one would a rousing musical? To expect, say, “Where the Wild Things Are” — about as perfect a work as one could ask for — to have the character complexity, sweeping portrayal of a society, range of humanity, of a “War and Peace”?

    Then, to dismiss Sendak as a hack, or mediocrity, because he can’t do what Tolstoy did?

    Liam Otten says:

    Lately the “literary vs. genre” debate has been rearing its hydra-like head in a number of contexts…

    And in this piece by Daniel Clowes: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2012-06-04-11-clowes-scifi.jpg

  123. Mike Hunter says:

    Hummf! Somehow posting that original Dave Berg URL, part of the necessary info became deleted, so the link doesn’t work. I reset the muddy-looking type in the original image, and posted it in PhotoBucket.

    Again, this cartoon serves as an example of the attitude which dismisses the totality of a work, because some parts in isolation may not be great:


  124. Mike Hunter says:

    Not because it’s “not OK,” as in unthinkably blasphemous, but because:

    – The premise of that type of criticism (“If the writing isn’t of great literary quality, then it’s garbage!”) is dubious, to say the least.

    – That it’s not even a matter of comparing apples and oranges, but hammers and screwdrivers.

    – The “sacred cows” term indicates that something which is actually worthless, or nothing special, is being given absurdly, utterly undeserved reverence.

  125. patrick ford says:

    Bill Gaines: Feldstein developed a Ray Bradbury-ish style of using words. He got all carried away with the words, and so did I. I loved Al’s words. And we got to the point where the art was really quite secondary. We were using first rate artists because why not use first rate artists, they can only enhance what we were doing. But Al would write such heavy captions and balloons on occasion there was no room for the artist to work. This was not a proper use of the comics form. Harvey was really using the comics format in the way it should be used. When Harvey conceived a story he conceived it pictorially. That’s why the lettering to him was part of the picture, and he insisted on hand lettering. To Al and me the lettering was nothing.

    Harvey Kurtzman: I don’t agree there is a way for comics to be, because I find there are readers who are verbal, and readers who are visual. Of course it’s not 100% either way.

    Gaines: No, but Harvey, what I’m getting at is that comics by their very nature are a visual art form. We were trying to pack so much into a seven page story that we insisted on seven panels per page minimum. And then we put a lot of words in.

  126. And then later, people like Sonny Rollins took conscious delight in taking the slightest, corniest old show tune and turning them into magnificent art.

  127. Mark Marek is tops.

  128. patrick ford says:

    No doubt. I think he went into animation? Anyhow that book HERCULES AMONG THE NORTH AMERICANS is staggeringly great. The Penguin Books edition is an almost perfect design object as well. Even the little Penguin on the title page is hand drawn. The story is great, the artwork is great, and there is a really nice colour section in the middle of the book.

  129. Daniel C. Parmenter says:

    I see your point, but whoa! Dave Berg! What a great example of his stuff. This particular strip calls to mind Lynda Barry’s comment from her TCJ interview:

    “See, that’s an example. Anybody who’s into comics would know it was Dave Berg, right? But all I know is that he draws really good teeth; I was obsessed with the way he drew teeth.”

  130. Dave Knott says:

    Yeah, Mark Marek,man. My personal candidate for most under-appreciated comics artist of the last 30 years.
    The Hercules book was originally serialized in National Lampoon, which seems to be the primary venue for Marek’s best work. He was working on another serial in NatLamp called “Dirty Father Harry” which I’m not sure was ever completed.
    A retrospective collection of his comics would be great.

  131. patrick ford says:

    Marek also did something called NEW WAVE COMICS in random 1981-1982 issues of National Lampoon.

  132. Chris Duffy says:

    Eddie, you are my favorite writer about comics!

  133. Liam Otten says:

    Samuel — I stand by my analogy. Aside from their uncommon sensitivity to female characters, its strikes me that memory (not to sound too Charlie Rose about it) is the great theme for both artists. The past haunts Maggie and Hopey no less than Tom and Laura. It probably haunts them more. Though perhaps not quite as much as Williams himself, whose bid for escape—from St. Louis, to New Orleans—was all the more explicit for it. (And, I might add, ultimately doomed to fail. After his death, and to what I imagine would have been his great chagrin, Williams’ body was returned to St. Louis by his brother, Dakin, and buried a few miles north of where I type.)

    I’ll stipulate to Williams ambition, but I strenuously object to your implication that Hernandez somehow lacks it. Following dozens of characters as they age in something approaching real time over 30 years… If that’s not ambition I sure don’t know what is.

    None of which is to say that I judge Jaime’s accomplishment by Tennessee’s yardsticks. An example: “Wigwam Bam, Part Seven” opens with Terry sitting on stage, performing with solo guitar. The viewpoint, composition and audience expressions all recall the cover to “Love and Rockets” 24, which depicts the same character in her younger, punk rock days. I find this an extremely moving yet utterly natural formal rhyme, and one I can’t quite imagine coming off as well in another medium. A novel would lack the visual recollection; film clips would muddy things with sound and movement; still photography, for me at least, would lack the sense of narrative continuity.

    But you know. Never say never. Artists are clever, and maybe someone could figure out how to reach similar effect in another arena. My point is merely that Jaime achieves it here, in the language of comics, which is no less a thing than the language of film or the language of theater.

    In fact, it seems to me that you’re the one leveraging Williams’ reputation to the detriment of the working artist. This, it further seems to me, is exactly the maneuver of which the “literaries” stand accused, and which so-called high art generally pulls on so-called low. Will Jaime’s work stand in 30 years? Who knows? We’ll see. But my money says it will.

  134. Liam Otten says:

    Steven, I meant. Sorry for that.

  135. Well, yeah, Briany, it’s the bird in context that makes the image so cornball.

    And I don’t see CK as being any less “filmic” than Vertigo. I’d be surprised if most people do.

  136. Briany Najar says:

    Charles Reece:
    “Well, yeah, Briany, it’s the bird in context that makes the image so cornball.”

    If that’s all you take from the image, then that’s your own quibble, fair enough.
    Dead soldiers are also cornball, so is the setting Sun.
    For me it’s the combo that speaks. I look at that image and spontaneously my mind seeks the motivation behind that particular meeting of familiar imaginal elements, exactly as if I’m trying to understand what someone is saying.
    The elements are petty on their own, but together they form a more complex meaning. Birds like that just don’t hang around near soldiers who are active behind a machine-gun. Also, that soldier’s ammo is all spent. These are narrative cues.
    My eye is also drawn to the poetic rendering of the “drapery”, the wrinkles and patina of the soldiers uniform, and the attitude of that foot. These elements move me, perhaps because of their plausibility and the evident care that Jack Davis took over this portrayal of a young man cut down in his prime while wearing the generic raiment that so many others have died in. I notice the lean-to feeling of the slumped figure which levers up the gun barrel because Davis knows anatomy and mass.
    Subtly, almost unconsciously, I take in the musical pattern occurring between: the diagonal forms; the bird relative to the awkwardly pointing foot; the negative triangle on the right surrounding the indifferent, eternal Sun already far enough beneath the “yard-arm” to abandon another noisy day of chaos; and the soft, melismatic clouds which move on, left to right, miles above the craggy, cratered battlefield.
    And then I go to the next panel.

    Charles Reece:
    “And I don’t see CK as being any less “filmic” than Vertigo. I’d be surprised if most people do”

    Exactly. A film is a film. A comic is a comic. Neither can be even slightly exhausted by recourse to the methods of literary criticism.
    Structuralist literary theory does provide the idea of non-verbal texts, and a talented Lacanian or Barthesian scholar may distill and uncover background assumptions and feral desires of a revelatory nature out of any narrative – but pictorial art isn’t all text and too few critics of comics take the time to elucidate within themselves a conscious appreciation of the art of graphical forces, composition, proportion, rhythm, and all the other elements of picture-making that mark the difference between a deft crafts-person and a hack.
    And aside from that, even an untutored artist, so long as they are engaged with the work, is making decisions: including this, excluding that, feeling their way around an oh-so-finite space within which they are attempting to relay an experience.
    It’s a truly remarkable behaviour, all too easy to take for granted.

  137. Liam Otten says:

    Mr. Fiore — I think Herriman also could be an interesting comparison, though—and maybe I’m wrong here—my understanding is that “Krazy Kat,” despite it resurgent reputation, was not exactly a popular touchstone either, in the way of Peanuts or Blanche Dubois. Would it have survived without the patronage of William Randolph Hearst? Really, I’m asking.

    But in any event, my point was not to settle the question of who deserves to be known as “The Tennessee Williams of Comics.” I was mostly quipping, and will happily consider other candidates, or other, equally half-facetious titles. The Emily Dickinson of comics? The Tallulah Bankhead?

    My point, in as much as I imagine that I must have had one, was merely to demonstrate that the literaries’ game of deploying the greats can be played ungenerously (see: Aristophanes) or generously (see: Billie Holiday). And though I’ll admit that Mr. Campbell sounds a bit more rigorous, my own objection is confined mostly to the former, which strikes me as a kind of cheap-shot posturing, hostile to artists and the creation of new work.

  138. Liam Otten says:

    One last thought. On the same “Wigwam Bam” page mentioned above, Izzy, invisible in the audience, calls out to Terry with the phrase “Do vases have eyes?” This is a silly allusion to an old in-joke, a mis-hearing of the song titled “Two Faces Have I.” But is this really so very different from “Blue Roses,” Jim’s nickname for Laura in “Glass Menagerie,” and a silly play on “pleurosis,” the childhood malady that left her with a limp?

  139. Jared Gardner says:

    Honestly, I am still not sure what “literature” is, and I’ve supposedly been teaching it for 20 years

  140. Jared Gardner says:

    I think it may be safe now to say: Thanks, Eddie, for a splendid piece!

  141. R. Fiore says:

    @Liam Otten (but not wanting to get lost in the middle of the comment thread), my response, mostly directed to Steven Samuels (assuming he capitalizes his name when he’s at home), was somewhat double-jointed. On the one joint I was pointing out that it’s off base to use Tennessee Williams to represent highbrow art and Jaime Hernandez to represent lowbrow art when the former was actually more of a mass market artist than the latter. His entire career was spent in the commercial theater, and for a good 17 years his plays were Broadway hits that were made into big budget Hollywood movies. Jaime’s work is in the sphere Robert Christgau has dubbed “semipopular” – that which has all the characteristics of popular art except popularity. On the other joint I was proposing Herriman as a more appropriate equivalent of Williams in terms of artistic stature. It’s achievement that you judge artists on, not ambition. Hearst is said to have been a fan of Krazy Kat personally but his patronage was also inspired by the prestige it had garnered in the 1920s. There was a certain element of social climbing in Hearst’s makeup, and the reason the Sunday pages were in black and white up until near the end was that he preferred it to appear in the arts section of his papers. It was popular enough at its peak to inspire animated cartoons and merchandising products, as well as the ballet. Actually Hearst had a tendency to keep more cartoonists on the payroll than he had subscribers for, perhaps to keep them out of the hands of competitors.

    What I disagree with is the notion that there’s no distinction to be made between low and high art. I think there are substantive differences, one of the main ones being that high art usually incorporates some attempt to isolate it from commercial pressures, whereas low art will often start out with legs in the air and the meter running. I think conventional wisdom is conventional wisdom for a reason, and that it can be wrong is not a reason to assume it’s always wrong.

    Nobody starts reading comics because they think it’s high art. Magazines like The Comics Journal are aimed not at people who started reading comics but for those who didn’t stop. We keep reading them because we don’t stop liking them, and we keep reading them because we see the artistic potential of the medium, which has been obvious since Herriman. It hasn’t reached its claimed potential, but it’s made down payments on it. Ng Suat Tong isn’t wrong to say that once you make these claims for the medium you ought to measure it against great works of art in others, but he is wrong when he says you therefore ought to ignore the down payments. To the propositions that (a) it will one day reach its claimed potential and (b) it will remain relegated to the trash heap where it belongs, I’ve suggested the third possibility that it will become a permanent part of the culture but not necessarily as a component of high art.

  142. patrick ford says:

    Some parallels were drawn earlier between comics art and story and the disconnect between jazz musicians and the material they elevated with their playing.
    I think you could make this even more stark by comparing comic books to popular music like Country Western, Rock, Soul, R&B, Blues, and so on. Narrow that down to just Rock and what do you have which could be said to represent high art? Pick any Rock musician and it would be easy to dismiss them using the exact same criteria being used against comic books.
    The songs? What? like THE WALL. Seriously? Musicianship? This “Clapton is god” business? What do you think Joe Pass, Tal Farlow, Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel thought of that description?
    So basically anyone who thinks a wide variety of classic comics are shit, had better not expect to be taken seriously if they show up anyplace saying Elvis, The Clash, Nirvana, or (fill in the blank) is great.
    Those people with truly elevated and refined taste get a pass, but why they are interested in comic books at all, or would bother writing about them is hard to understand.

  143. Anthony Thorne says:

    Those fun lovin’ folks over at the Hooded Utilitarian – former Comics Journal contributor Ng Suat Tong, specifically – wrote a response to Eddie’s piece that I’m not sure has appeared in this thread yet (unless I scrolled right over the top of it). Their magnanimous stance of embracing friendly critical debate can be seen in the title featured within the URL right below.


  144. R. Fiore says:

    I’m not quite sure who’s being addressed here. Anyway, here’s something I once wrote about Harvey Kurtzman and his attitude towards what was happening in popular music: “It would be well to remember what a trap the burgeoning youth culture had set for the likes of Kurtzman. Having been born in 1924 as he was, popular culture had existed in a virtual steady state for as long as he remembered. People who had top ten hits in the 1920s were still making the charts at the beginning of the 60s. New personalities emerged as old ones faded away, but they took their places in the same structure. An insightful observer might have noted the diminishing returns in the replacements, that Van Heflin and Rock Hudson were not Humphrey Bogart and Gary Cooper, or that Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn were not Rodgers and Hart. Still, even the people who were creating the revolution, like Elvis Presley and his handlers, assumed that the rock and roll performer would have to smooth himself out and fit himself into the existing showbiz structure. When an artist begins his career he has a direct access to his original emotions that he will never have again. As performance is repeated skill is gained but threatens to become empty professionalism. To recreate that original emotion artificially when one has mastered a medium is the height of artistry. Rock and roll overcomes this problem by catching musicians at the moment of achieving a bare proficiency. Look at any list of the best rock and roll singles and I think you’ll find that the great majority come from very early in the musician’s career, and a surprising number are the first shot out of the box, or nearly so. For even the best performers the truly creative parts of a rock and roll career seldom lasts more than six years. When rock and roll comes along it displaces as dominant popular idiom jazz, a musical form based on mastery and virtuosity. Who could blame Kurtzman or Stan Freberg or anybody else for seeing the greasy young parvenus as a flash in the pan? Who would have imagined that the musical theater that had just experienced a golden age was headed into a precipitous decline?”

  145. Pallas says:

    “The simple fact of putting the pictures before the words creates a lively spontaneity that comes across almost as improvisation”

    Lot’s of comics have been made this way- and still are. Including such modern day classics as Avengers vs. X-men: Versus….. also about Captain American hitting people!

  146. steven samuels says:

    “If you need to wax redundant or over-intellectualize in order to appreciate comics, then you don’t appreciate comics–you appreciate the sound of your own voice”

    You haven’t read too much of TCJ these past thirty-odd years then, have you? I mean, criticism was supposed to be one of its main stocks in trade for all that time. But I guess most people here don’t have an appreciation for criticism.

  147. steven samuels says:

    “I’ll stipulate to Williams ambition, but I strenuously object to your implication that Hernandez somehow lacks it.”

    I never said that Hernandez lacks ambition. Aesthetically speaking, he just hasn’t accomplished as much as his boosters say he has.

    And we’ll have to strongly disagree on the value of “Wig Wam Bam,” which is for my money one of JH’s artistic low points.

    “Following dozens of characters as they age in something approaching real time over 30 years… If that’s not ambition I sure don’t know what is.”

    It’s an athletic event, not a great work of art.

  148. steven samuels says:

    “In the wake of the comics medium’s forty-year hike to serious acceptance, the chances are that now a person won’t get laughed out the room for putting them on a par with Literature. ”

    No, but he may get sent to sit in the corner….

  149. steven samuels says:

    Like Domingos more or less states, the whole premise of this is off. It’s not “literary” standards being applied, but aesthetic ones. Big difference. Maybe it wouldn’t even be an issue if people keep insisting that EC as a whole represents an artistic high point for comics.

    “The question should not be whether the ostensible ‘story,’ the plot and all its detail, is worth our time; stories tend to all go one way or another. The question should be whether the person or persons performing the story, whether in pictures or speech or dance or song, or all of the above, have made it their own and have made it worthy.”

    Billie Holiday’s early music and “Vertigo” are sublime, rare examples. That means they succeeded in their own particular way despite the frothy lyrics and silly plotlines. They’re exceptions. One could point to other examples and see where lack of concern for content helped marr the end product. Like Groth said about Strangers On a Train:

    “…This required both skill and insight. Hitchcock had the former in spades but displayed little of the latter, and evidently chose not even to try in this film. ….. Strangers on a Train may not be the train wreck that later films like Torn Curtain or Topaz were, but it was still a second-rate effort.. … .. Strangers on a Train is a sad commentary on the mechanical nature of Hitchcock’s imagination….”

  150. Briany Najar says:

    OMG you guys, I said the Sun was setting but in the caption for that image it says the sun is rising! Yoinks! I did not read the caption! (Why would I though, text sucks! Particularly when it’s much too exclamatory!)
    The thing is, even Marie Severin’s colours are telling me it’s morning now I know it’s supposed to be. Song lyrics and the music shouldn’t be considered apart from each other, I suppose – or some other glib analogy, maybe even one involving words like ‘alchemy’ and ‘synergy’.
    Right so anyway, the Sun’s still just as indifferent and eternal, it’s still the corniest celestial body around by dint of its frequency of appearance and over-usage, it’s just rising over the battlefield instead of setting which means it’s morning not evening and that little birdy has just risen from its corny little bed to find some stupid worms for breakfast.
    Furthermore, rather than having moved beyond the yard-arm, the Sun hasn’t yet passed it – so put that bottle down, it’s not time yet.

  151. Liam Otten says:

    “I never said that Hernandez lacks ambition.”

    No? But hold on here. Waitaminit. I never said that you said it. (And in any event, is “said” really the best word choice, considering that we’re probably both typing? At least, I’m typing. But perhaps you dictate to an iphone.) What I wrote, if you will read the quotation that you just quoted, is that you implied it. So, let us return to the scene of the crime:

    “Tennessee aimed much higher than Jaime ever has or probably will.”

    Ah, yes. Clearly I stand corrected. How silly of me.

    “Aesthetically speaking, he just hasn’t accomplished as much as his boosters say he has.”

    Excellent strategy, sir! One never attacks; one only defends against the excesses of others. Clearly this is not your first rodeo.

    “And we’ll have to strongly disagree on the value of ‘Wig Wam Bam.'”

    Yes, that we will. Though again, you miss my point. Or perhaps you change the subject. For despite my fondness for the book — I think it’s wonderful — I was not really arguing for immediate canonization. (Sorry, the Pope just quit, got the Vatican on my mind.) Rather, its raising ’twas but merely an example, one of many that might have been profitably deployed in demonstration of the ambition you so blithely dismiss.

    “which is for my money one of JH’s artistic low points.”

    I realize we haven’t spent much time together, but I somehow I feel like I know you already…

    “It’s an athletic event, not a great work of art.”

    Ah, what the heck. Let’s let that one go.

    I do so try to style myself a generous critic.

  152. Kim Thompson says:

    I’m not really aware of anyone who’s seriously argued that the EC comics constitute an absolute peak in the history of comics (American comic books in the 1950 yes, global comics no), or that comics has produced any peak works that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the greatest works in other fields. You can discuss whether EC Comics are overvalued, but Ng Suat Tong and his fellow High Art Fascists seem insistent on ratcheting up the rhetoric to the point where those who don’t agree with them that EC is flat-out “shit” are “bootlicks” who’ve abandoned their “ideals” and consigned comics to the trash heap of aesthetic history. (I don’t remember him being as much of a prick about this when he was writing for THE COMICS JOURNAL, so I’m guessing he must have gone through the Noah Berlatsky Hooded Utilitarian prickification program in the interim. Sometimes it verges on the Oedipal, if you ask me.)

    American comic books have always been hacked-out, underproduced, commercially-motivated, heavily-censored pulp fiction or farce aimed at teenagers. WITHIN THIS CONTEXT, individual cartoonists or editors have managed to create work that transcends these strictures, and through a combination of sheer technical brilliance and luck of the zeitgeist achieve some genuinely remarkable things — things worth treasuring, I think. It would be equally insane to argue that EC Comics are as good as Goya or Hemingway; that anyone is saying EC Comics are as good as Goya or Hemingway; that their failure to be as good as Goya or Hemingway immediately banishes them to the level of “shit”; or that comics’ failure to generate work that’s as good as Goya or Hemingway so far makes comics a second-or third- rate medium. (I use Goya and Hemingway as shorthand for “acknowledged peaks in their respective fields,” so Hemingway-haters, please don’t spin this off into arguments about Hemingway, just mentally substitute whoever who think should go in the slot.) But all “ultimate value of comics” arguments seem to eventually spin off into some variants of the above.

    The High Art Fascists make a legitimate point that it’s not entirely fair to boil down their objections to EC and other canonized works to an attack of “literaries” who foolishly denigrate arguably great comics works whose “libretto” (to use the stupid content/great works analogy of opera — which I assume Ng Suat Tong and Noah Berlatsky will be ferociously dismantling within 12 hours) is clichéd, puerile, or nonsensical. But it’s probably not any less fair than many of their tactics or straw-man arguments.

  153. patrick ford says:

    “Sometimes it verges on the Oedipal”

    More like that explains everything. If a man is measured by the stature of his enemies then Gary Groth must be shorter than Harlan Ellison.

  154. R. Fiore says:

    The elevation of Vertigo in the Sight and Sound critic’s poll had a perverse effect. If you’ll look at their top 100 it’s actually quite the “High Church” list, faithful to traditional art house values. You could definitely infer from it the message that the contribution of Hollywood studio film in the sound era to the art of cinema was marginal. It’s nothing like the Cahiers du Cinema list, which essentially renders cinema into a primarily Franco-American enterprise (and is incidentally closer to my personal tastes). But when it was discussed in the American press at least the only things anyone talked about were three Hollywood pictures — Vertigo, Citizen Kane and The Godfather.

    Another thing I notice, apropos of nothing to do with this site, is that Chaplin seems to be holding his own despite the rhetorical advantage Buster Keaton has these days. Chaplin has three films on the list to two for Keaton.

  155. steven samuels says:

    “But for me this page, and others of a similar stripe, opened up a whole new different way of thinking about comics (I was nine; I’d been thinking about them for quite a few years).” …….
    To bring things full circle, how does that Marvel comic stand up if you take away the pictures? It doesn’t. Does that make it worthless? The literaries would say undoubtedly.”

    I wish a better example than Kirby would have been used. For one thing, it’s hard to argue against the idea that removing the words from that or any other Marvel comic would be an improvement. I think most aesthetically-minded people would agree to that.

    But it seems that here again there’s that blind spot that some comics-minded people have about Kirby. A “literary” person is more likely to have problems with the moronism inherent in the material than with the lack of literary pretension. Is it possible that an English major will fail to appreciate the sense of flow shown in that Captain America page? Certainly. But it’s also possible that the idiotic subject matter will be the major stumbling block for any deeper appreciation. For most people trying to cleave the artistry from the idiocy will be too much to ask. And not just in a “fine arts” sense, but in the sense of the POV of an escapist-loving, man-on-the-street. Anyone who doubts this should step out of their comics bubble and show that page to someone who hasn’t grown up with that type of thing. It’s simply too much to ask. Unlike say with Billie Holiday, whose music is much more universal and certainly not idiotic.

    What was that one offhand line that Groth long ago said about Kirby? That the latter is partly responsible for perpetuating the moronism that is part and parcel of the mainstream scene?

    I rest my case.

  156. steven samuels says:

    “I’m not really aware of anyone who’s seriously argued that the EC comics constitute an absolute peak in the history of comics”

    Yes, I think there’s been more than a few. One could quibble, but I think over the years that’s been the recurring refrain. And if not “best ever,” then something close to it. Either way, the claim is questionable.

  157. steven samuels says:

    We can go back and forth, but the comparison is so silly as to be barely worth mentioning. The “Locas” series has succumbed to the same pitfalls that any long-form serial has. JH is nowhere near as serious minded as T. Williams was in examining the human condition. The dramatic closure available in a three-hour play blows away the discursions of a thirty-year-old comic series that has had multiple “wink-wink” false endings.

  158. Liam Otten says:

    Good lord, does this thread still live?

    You try to pay someone a compliment…

    Well, as long as we’re stuck here, I might as well amuse myself.

    I’m going to say that George Herriman is The Ramones of Comics. Or maybe The Barnett Newman of Comics, in that all three manage to spin limited elements to surprisingly versatile effect.

    David B is The Leonard Baskin of Comics, in that he has made important contributions both as an artist and a publisher; and in as much as his work is at once steeped in, and rebellious against, classical traditions.

    Milo Manara is The Helmut Newton of Comics, in that both men boast fearsome technical ability that I am nevertheless forced to hide from my mother.

    Chris Ware is The Art Spiegelman of Comics, in that… Oh, wait, Art Spiegelman also makes comics. Hmmm. I may have to rethink this one. Anyway, both great artists. You ever see that New Yorker cover Spiegelman did of the Easter Bunny crucified on a 1040 tax form? Just brilliant.

    Gary Panter is The Gary Panter of Comics. Or almost. I mean, I think we can all agree that Gary Panter is such a unique artist that not even Gary Panter himself is worthy of the title “The Gary Panter of Comics.” However,

    Jim Woodring is The Jim Woodring of Comics. Fer sure.

    Eddie Campbell is “The ‘Sir Gawain and The Green Knight’ of Comics,” because he once drew a book about money, and because I feel I have abused his hospitality.

    Ai Yazawa is The Jane Austen of Comics, because I needed some women on this list and couldn’t come up with anything for Rutu Modan, Marjane Satrapi, Posy Simmonds or Marian Churchland. Have you read the latter’s “Beast?” It’s really, really good.

    Takehiko Inoue is The John Singer Sargent of Comics, because his brushstroke leaves me breathless.

    C.F. is The Homi Bhabha of Comics, because I can never figure out what either one is getting at and it makes me feel stupid.

    Gilbert Hernandez is The George Romero of Comics, because he likes zombies.

  159. Liam Otten says:

    Actually, maybe I should have gone with Gilbert in the first place. Gilbert draws great zombies. Maybe Gilbert could have rescued me from this argument…


    “What was that,” a man whispers darkly.


    Hands shaking, he reaches for the door. There, on the porch, a decayed gray army stretches away and away and away, as far as the eyes can see and the lips can say.

    Escape? Impossible.

    But then, he thinks. “Perhaps it is not so bad, to be relieved of this burden, this pain, this endless suffering, this… this… this… LIFE!”

    Trembling, he steps outside, ready—nay, eager!—to embrace his fate.

    “Bite me!” he screams to the undead walkers milling amidst the garden gnomes.

    “Bite me!” he roars, two clenched fists in the air.

    “Bite me!”

    And those, alas, were his final words.

  160. Dominick Grace says:

    Well, now, be fair, the claim there about them being among the best-written comics of all time is being made by the guy publishing them; I’d hardly call that an impartial evaluation.

  161. Kim Thompson says:

    There’s a difference between saying that EC Comics were some of the best-written comics (international, including comic strips, etc.) of all time and saying EC Comics were some of the best-written comics produced in the American comic-book format up to that point. And yes, I think a certain margin should be given to the guy actually publishing them (although I don’t doubt that Russ is and was sincere).

    There’s a lot of posturing critical one-upmanship going on here. I’m sure the High Art Fascists have a genuinely lower opinion of the EC stuff than Eddie, Gary G., or I do, and their reservations are legitimate and there could be legitimate discussions about it, but they’ve exaggerated this legitimate disagreement into some sort of massive abyss that separates the Noble Defenders Of Great Art Intent On Uplifting The Medium With Tough Love from the Nostalgic Slobbering Fanboys Wallowing In Their Shit, and are serving it up with maximum 21st century internet snark. Well, everyone needs a job. Mine’s publishing comics I like, so back to that.

  162. Dominick Grace says:

    EC comics certainly aren’t shit, though equallyt certainly they have their limitations, some historical/contextual, some interent in the abilities of those who produced them. But any attempt to evaluate their merits that DOESN’T take the historical context into account really does rather rig the game. Lots of “literature” CAN’T be understood or appreciated at all without the historical context spelled out in detail. And lots of great literature from previous centuries would almost certainly never get published today, without the accumulated weight of “greatness” it now carries. I can just imagine how a playwrights starting out today would fare if he or she wrote in rhyming couplets or imabic pentameter, for instance. If we can cut Shakespeare (or Marlowe, or Ben Jonson, or John Ford–the Jacobean one) some slack for the various aspects of their work that are no longer consonant with what is considered de rigeur literarily, surely we ought to be able to do the same for EC.

    It’s also rather disingenuous to condemn something for not measuring up to standards or formal requirements it never intended to pursue. It makes about as much sense as condemning the brevity, plotlessness, and absence of character of a sonnet, because a sonnet is a poem and so is an epic, so a sonnet ought to achieve the same things as an epic.

  163. patrick ford says:

    A defender of high art is a person who might be admired. If a person’s critical standards are truly elevated and their appreciation of art is codified in terms of artistic intent free from or somehow transcending commercial considerations then more power to them. That’s defensible high castle. It might be a little lonely up there in the rafters of the Keep, but that high ground is a good position from which to toss the occasional stone .
    It’s a completely different matter when people who are on record calling things great which are on the same level of what they would call shit if it weren’t for the fact they think it’s great. So what you have is high art people who bemoan the unfulfilled potential of a form, and then you have pretenders who attach themselves to these arguments, but fail to notice most of what they like is on SUCH a LOW level the high art people can’t even be bothered to comment on it.

  164. patrick ford says:

    Kim: (although I don’t doubt that Russ is and was sincere).

    Not to mention a whole lot smarter than his critics.

    “Fresh out of the University of Missouri, first in his class with a Ph.D. in physics, Cochran began teaching at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, in the 1960s. Although he quickly rose to head of his department, he yearned for his Ozark roots. In 1975, he resigned his academic position and returned to West Plains with his family. “I wanted my kids to know their grandparents on an everyday basis, not just at Christmas. I wanted them to have the kind of town to grow up in that I had.” By the 1970s, downtown business districts all over America were losing their retail vibrancy to the new economics of warehouse giants and strip malls. West Plains was no exception. Cochran resolved to renovate the buildings that were “old friends” to him and to encourage local businessmen to find “a niche doing some thing Wal-Mart is not.” The bustling square is a testament to his efforts and philosophy.”

  165. george says:

    “Some parallels were drawn earlier between comics art and story and the disconnect between jazz musicians and the material they elevated with their playing.
    “I think you could make this even more stark by comparing comic books to popular music like Country Western, Rock, Soul, R&B, Blues, and so on. ”

    You could draw a lot of parallels between comic books and rock music. Both were created by marginalized “outsiders,” from working-class cultures despised by “mainstream” society — the children of Jewish and Italian immigrants with comics; blacks and Southern whites with rock ‘n’ roll. The entrepreneurs were aggressive hustlers on the margins of their industries (music and publishing).

    Comics and rock were initially loathed by most adults, and both were regarded as rebellious and subversive decades ago. And both became part of Corporate America — and now, part of the global economy.

    I’m reminded of Noah Cross’ line from “Chinatown”: “Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”

  166. patrick ford says:

    The Pop Music/Comics argument is a really good one to bring up if people are setting their standards at Shakespeare/Motzart/Rembrandt levels.
    Because if a person is going to strut around sniffing at Harvey Kurtzman, or Gilbert Hernandez, then they logically could never like any pop music, or if they did they would never be able to give any logical explanation as to why (fill in the blank)____ is great, but people who like E.C. Seagar are a bunch of self-deluded bozos.

  167. Bill says:

    “I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made.”
    ― Franklin D. Roosevelt

  168. Is the need for finding new and “evolved” terminology for defining funny books not a Freudian attempt at hiding one’s subconscious shame? Why still pursue the validation? A rose by any other name…

  169. patrick ford says:

    B. Clavery (Editor of SLUGGO: THE MAGAZINE OF TRANSFORMATIVE ARTS): American baby boomers got their first whiff of Revisionism in the pages of MAD MAGAZINE. Of course it is important to note that, especially in the current realm of unsupported syllogisms, all parodies are Revisionist, but not all Revisionism is parody. And as the use of parody multiplies geometrically in the modern world, in the service of everything from making political statements to selling soapsuds and all stations in between, the form is spread thin and becomes toothless, lacking the artist’s perspective which would make these iterations true Revisionist works. They are as far from art as McDonald’s is from hamburgers, Starbuck’s is from a cup of coffee, and AMERICAN IDOL is from a talent show.
    It is a steady journey downhill from Hegemon of Thasos to the authors of SCARY MOVIE, but the twentieth century gave us a number of brilliant parodists, including Harvey Kurtzman, Tom Stoppard, and T.S. Elliot, whose epic poem transcended mere pastiche to recontextualize and ultimately rise up to the level attained by the wide array of referenced material.

  170. paul shuster says:

    I have a lot of the old Russ Cochran E. C. libraries, and there is a quote that I think is pretty relevant here. There’s a scene in one old Johnny Craig Vault of Horror (this was when he was really on top of his game and had started to be very interesting and experimental in his use of the comic book form) that is an extremely effective and totally wordless series of panels. The commentary points out how effective the art is… but then finds it necessary to point out that the story is not much. From memory, since I’m too lazy to get it down off of the shelf it said, “It was as if he had taken a particularly lame episode of the Twilight Zone and directed it as Gone with the Wind.”

    Well, I don’t think the fact that it is a “lame” story really detracts from the comic, because I found the art startlingly effective. Of course, EC always treated the artists as the rock stars, until they got Ray Bradbury as an official writer and he got treated with the same honor they gave their artists. Some of the best EC stories were rip offs of great horror authors, like Lovecraft, Poe, Sayers and others that were then used as a showcase for their artists. (In fact, they ripped off Bradbury a few times before they actually employed him.)

    I notice that you run into this same problem with other primarily visual mediums. I mean I often hear people lament that people don’t read anymore, but I rarely hear people lament film illiteracy. Oh, they’ll praise a few film and even TV shows as art, but they won’t complain that people don’t watch these movies with the same fervor that they criticize the lack of reading of prose.

  171. paul shuster says:

    The thing is, I actually try to make people who haven’t read the Patriots read the Patriots (from Shock SuspenStories #2). Because I think it is still relevant in modern times and it is a well done story. It’s very effective at getting its message across, and sadly that message is still needed in the modern world.

    However, Ng Suat Tong has said it is a worthless story (as all EC Comics are worthless, so must this story be), and I’m worthless for liking it or thinking its well done or relevant.

    I should really go off and kill myself in the most painful and gruesome way possible for thinking that people should read that comic, that’s for sure.

    Incidentally, since Alan Moore clearly admired EC comics, both he, and his tribute to them, Watchmen, must also be considered worthless, I suppose. Of course, I expect Tong will call it “overrated tripe, fit only for dogs” in a future article, so I’m really looking forward to that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *