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View Full Version : comics aren't books- so says this guy.



Tim Simmons
11-07-2006, 03:52 PM
let's get some torches and chase him to the old mill...

Link:http://www.wired.com/news/columns/0,71997-0.html
Let me slip into my moldiest Andy Rooney sweater here, because I know how much you guys love it when I whine about the Age of Mediocrity. (We're in the midst of it now, in case you're new to this bimonthly screed.)

Gene Luen Yang is a teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area who also happens to be a fine illustrator. He produced a graphic novel (or "comic book," as we used to call them), American Born Chinese, which has been nominated for a National Book Award in the young people's literature category.

I have not read this particular "novel" but I'm familiar with the genre so I'm going to go out on a limb here. First, I'll bet for what it is, it's pretty good. Probably damned good. But it's a comic book. And comic books should not be nominated for National Book Awards, in any category. That should be reserved for books that are, well, all words.

This is not about denigrating the comic book, or graphic novel, or whatever you want to call it. This is not to say that illustrated stories don't constitute an art form or that you can't get tremendous satisfaction from them. This is simply to say that, as literature, the comic book does not deserve equal status with real novels, or short stories. It's apples and oranges.

If you've ever tried writing a real novel, you'll know where I'm coming from. To do it, and especially to do it well enough to be nominated for this award, the American equivalent of France's Prix Goncourt or Britain's Booker Prize, is exceedingly difficult.

Juvenile literature is a fairly new category (1996) to the NBAs, which have been around since 1950. It's possible that no author wrote a great book aimed at that audience in the past year, but I doubt it. Juvenile literature attracts a lot of first-rate authors. Always has.

Sorry, but no comic book, regardless of how cleverly executed, belongs in that class.



GENE YANG RESPONDS
Link: http://www.wired.com/news/culture/0,72086-0.html?tw=rss.index

Editor's Note: This article first appeared on the blog First Second.

Part of me wonders exactly how serious Tony Long is. After all, his column is titled "The Luddite." He has an online persona he needs to uphold. To be honest, I can see where he's coming from, especially as an educator. I, too, worry about the declining literacy of our students. However, studies have shown a link between comics and increased literacy skills. Often, comics readers are just plain readers, and many fans of prose literature attribute their love of reading to comics. We also can't forget that we describe the act of reading comics as just that: reading. There's no other word that can adequately describe how we interact with stories told in that medium.

I just wanted to get all that out there -- I know it's not germaine to the issues Mr. Long raises. Here's how I understand his argument:

1. Sequential images (comics) and prose are different.

2. Prose is an inherently superior medium. (And more difficult to create than comics.)

And here's how I respond: No. 2 is just plain stupid. Different media have different strengths. There are some things that comics is better at, and some things that prose is better at. Try writing prose instructions on how to put together Ikea furniture and tell me how it goes. And while you're at it, try replicating in prose the visceral poignancy of that final, black panel in Adrian Tomine's Supermarket (a short story in his excellent Sleepwalk and Other Stories, in case you're looking).

No. 1 is much more intriguing. It seems like a true statement, and in many ways it is, but prose has its roots in sequential images. The two aren't as separate as they might seem. Many written languages (Chinese, for example) still bear a lot of the artifacts of their pictorial ancestry. Are works created in Chinese less literary than works created in phonetic languages simply because Chinese is more pictorial? How about works created in ancient Chinese, in which the characters clearly resemble what they represent?

I don't think the boundary between prose and sequential images is that stark, and I think the generation raised on multimedia documents understands this. In fact, I believe this new generation actually blurs that boundary.

My students are used to reading documents made up of words and images, sound files and movies. They aren't disturbed when these elements bleed into each other -- when words use visual devices to enhance what they're communicating, when images are made up of textual elements.

The nomination of a graphic novel for the National Book Award, especially in the Young Adult category, shows that the judges are aware of this. I also find evidence for this boundary blurring in M.T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, one of my fellow nominees.

Octavian Nothing is a brilliant book. Please go read it if you haven't. One of the most intriguing aspects of the book (for me, at least) is Anderson's use of visual storytelling devices. For example, Anderson uses different fonts and font styles to communicate time, place, and emotion.

There are other, more striking, examples. In an early chapter, the protagonist opens the door to a forbidden room and is startled by a sign hanging on the wall, a sign that reveals the secret behind the peculiarities of his existence. That sign is DRAWN in the middle page. It slaps you in the face on the page turn, much as it does Octavian when he opens the door.

Toward the end of the book (here comes a spoiler, so go away until you've actually read it), after Octavian suffers a gruesome personal tragedy, entire passages of the book are scribbled out with what looks to be a crow quill pen. The pages of angry lines and ink splotches communicate as much or more about Octavian's state of mind as the paragraphs that came before.

No one would argue that M.T. Anderson's book is not a novel, but does Anderson's inclusion of graphic devices diminish the "novel-ness" of Octavian Nothing? Does it make Anderson less of a "novelist"?

Not to me. To me, it shows that he committed to the telling of his story above all else, and that he is willing to use whatever devices modern printing technology affords to communicate effectively. To me, it makes him a storyteller worthy of my admiration.

costello
11-07-2006, 03:58 PM
I can't take any argument seriously that begins with:

"I have not read this particular 'novel' but I'm familiar with the genre so I'm going to go out on a limb here."

Jacob Lyon Goddard
11-07-2006, 04:13 PM
well, they're not books
a comic is two little boxes drawn next to each other, usually with stuff inside, meant to be viewed in a particular order

Peanuts isn't a book, it's a comic
Watchmen isn't a book, it's a comic

and comics are fucking GREAT!

Kensington
11-07-2006, 04:19 PM
This is not about denigrating the comic book, or graphic novel, or whatever you want to call it.That's exactly what it's about. :roll:

YouStayClassy
11-07-2006, 04:23 PM
I can't take any argument seriously that begins with:

"I have not read this particular 'novel' but I'm familiar with the genre so I'm going to go out on a limb here."

Yep.

That's like every politician ever to me that comes out against something in pop culture.

The Cheap-Arse Film Critic
11-07-2006, 04:27 PM
He makes his argument in a particularly high-minded and snooty way, but he's not wrong. They're not books. I hate the term "Graphic Novel," as it sounds like something somebody would come up with because they're ashamed to be seen reading a comic.

Kensington
11-07-2006, 04:29 PM
He makes his argument in a particularly high-minded and snooty way, but he's not wrong. They're not books. I hate the term "Graphic Novel," as it sounds like something somebody would come up with because they're ashamed to be seen reading a comic.Why must comics and books be mutually exclusive?

The Cheap-Arse Film Critic
11-07-2006, 04:30 PM
Why must comics and books be mutually exclusive?

Because they're two totally different things, with their own strengths, weaknesses, and structual rules. A comic is not a book. It's printed literature, yes, but that doesn't make it a book.

DAVE
11-07-2006, 04:34 PM
Steven Grant's always interesting response, from cbr,http://comicbookresources.com/columns/?column=10 :
What mostly seems to have gotten the panties of a vocal few in a bunch recently is WIRED columnist Tony Long's declaration that a graphic novel should not be nominated for a National Book Award. Which has led to a pretty good, if inadvertent, exegesis on the real state of comics in America today.

Not that I have any particular sympathy for Long's viewpoint in general - he's one of those cultural luddites who seem to believe that no new experience can ever measure up to the tried and true, the type that blame modern illiteracy on the fairly egalitarian availability of the Internet - but in this instance he's not entirely wrong. The graphic novel in question is Gene Luen Yang's AMERICAN BORN CHINESE, which Long admits to not having read. I haven't either. Long's premise is "... it's a comic book. And comic books should not be nominated for National Book Awards, in any category. That should be reserved for books that are, well, all words… This is not about denigrating the comic book, or graphic novel, or whatever you want to call it. This is not to say that illustrated stories don't constitute an art form or that you can't get tremendous satisfaction from them. This is simply to say that, as literature, the comic book does not deserve equal status with real novels, or short stories. It's apples and oranges… If you've ever tried writing a real novel, you'll know where I'm coming from."

I do know where he's coming from. And he's not exactly right either.

It's hard to tell how much of Long's attitude is simply the same cultural snobbery that sent some into a tizzy when Neil Gaiman's SANDMAN got nominated for a World Fantasy Award. (It's one thing to say that a graphic novel can't possibly measure up to the standards of, say, William Gaddis' JR, which I cite mainly because it's the last thing I can remember winning the National Book Award, which shows how much attention I pay to it or most other awards, but there's no doubt that Neil & divers hands' comic was easily the equal or better of most of the flaming crap that passes for fantasy novels these days.) Long's argument is obviously based on an easily explodable bias that comics material - which he seems to suggest is inherently juvenile in nature, a longstanding proposition among cultural and social elites who have largely done what they could to make it a self-fulfilling prophecy - can not possibly, ever, be the equal of a prose novel. Which is at least partly true. Because both use words, there's a constant confusion and desire to parallel the two, a tendency the term "graphic novel" exacerbates. But comics and novels work in different ways, so any strict attempt to parallel the two is doomed by a logical flaw. Novels can do things comics can't, certainly, and we can argue all day about whether those things represent something inherently more sophisticated and superior. But comics can also do things novels can't, and simply that many comics haven't done those things is no argument that they can't. In some ways, we're currently in the great era of experimenting with the form; the breadth and depth of its capabilities have yet to be determined.

I know it's not fashionable to discuss Marshall McLuhan these days - the current widespread dismissal of McLuhan isn't so much a dismissal of his theories as of various increasingly inventive interpretations by others, with those interpretations being confused with the theories - but he basically strung media, including print, along a line from hot to cool. Both comics and prose are print, of course, but comics are inherently "hotter" than novels, as the visual element of them produces a more immediate and visceral response than prose, which requires cooperation and digestion, can achieve. The worst comic book is still a more immediate and visceral experience than the best novel. Which doesn't make the comic book superior, only different; one could make easily make the argument that prose creates, in the long run, a deeper experience by requiring the reader to invest himself in the material in ways comics don't.

As Long says, apples and oranges.

But while I think Long's basic premise is ridiculously off the mark, his conclusions strike me as reasonable, for different reasons, one, in fact, having to do with fashion.

Funny, I was just talking with someone yesterday after fashion in prose writing, how writers widely touted in the not too distant past, like Saul Bellow, who was once being circulated as the perfect American writer, are never mentioned today. He's out of fashion, except in narrow markets. William Burroughs is largely out of fashion, and at one point he was being called the greatest novelist of the 20th century. (Then again, so was Kafka, Faulkner, and dozens of others, and it's the 21st century now.) It was mentioned that the "mainstream" novel has become its own genre, with publishers enforcing certain conventions on it, rather than the applauded core of fiction that it was as late as thirty years ago, with all other genres dangling off it like ignored junks drifting unacknowledged alongside a great ocean liner. The '60s and '70s pretty much changed that, as colleges and universities felt the need to move from hallowed, elitist places of learning and lure in greater numbers of students by appealing to their broader interests, sort of the way the Catholic Church introduced folk masses to sell its continued relevancy to "the kids."

As pop culture became the bait to draw greater numbers to academia, it wasn't long before it took greater importance in curricula, and competitive pressures sent hundreds, maybe thousands, of grad students and doctoral candidates scrambling for virgin pop culture territory for thesis subjects in hopes of demonstrating their originality. A lot of real nonsense has been promoted in this way over the years. And literary circles aren't immune to such things; there's a constant pressure there among publishers and critics alike to discover "the next big thing," just like comics editors live under constant pressure to find the next "hot artist," even though the time of that concept may have passed. If a critic/student can't come up with a new take on a familiar writer's work, better to find a new subject. Though they like to present themselves as the great bastion of true culture, the literary world is as subject to the whims of fashion as any other. Whichever thesis gets pushed the hardest, or by the person with the most clout, or fits the best into someone's notion of marketability becomes dominant until the next one comes around. The literary industry is an industry like any other.

Which is why I find the nomination of Yang's book a bit suspect. Like Long, I suspect it's pretty good; it would have to be to even begin to justify the nomination. Yet I also have the suspicion that the nomination is an attempt by National Book Award committee to achieve some level of street cred and demonstrate their continued relevance, and in this case it's most likely that the nomination is the award, unless they undermine that theory by giving AMERICAN BORN CHINESE the award. Unlike Long, my skepticism doesn't extend from a belief in the inherent subliterate worthlessness of the form, but from my reading; while I have a great belief in the potential of the graphic novel, I've yet to read one, with the arguable exception of Alan Moore & Eddie Campbell's FROM HELL, that comes anywhere near achieving the density and depth of a good novel, let alone an exceptional one. Comics aren't exactly a new field, but the graphic novel is, and while we can certainly judge the relative qualities of graphic novels on their own merits, setting them head-on against top notch prose fiction is so far a dodgy prospect. The medium hasn't yet developed sophisticated enough tools to compete in that arena, and that's something we have to work on in concert. Not that there aren't potential roadmaps out there, like Bryan Talbot's forthcoming meditation on Alice In Wonderland. But.

Unless AMERICAN BORN CHINESE is that damn good. But it smells like something else is going on here. Unless, as I said, the book wins in its category, in which case I'll reassess. Can't wait to read it, though.

Kensington
11-07-2006, 04:46 PM
Because they're two totally different things, with their own strengths, weaknesses, and structual rules. A comic is not a book. It's printed literature, yes, but that doesn't make it a book.My copy of Jimmy Corrigan certainly looks like a book. :-?

Stark Raving
11-07-2006, 04:47 PM
Wasn't this posted about a week ago? :dunno:

EDIT: Yep, thought so (http://www.606studios.com/bendisboard/showthread.php?t=91071&highlight=wrong).

costello
11-07-2006, 07:27 PM
Because they're two totally different things, with their own strengths, weaknesses, and structual rules. A comic is not a book. It's printed literature, yes, but that doesn't make it a book.

I would say that a comic is a book in that it printed on paper and the contents of which is either bound or stapled within a cover.

I wouldn't say that a comic is a NOVEL and I would argue that the collections of comic books that are bound in hard or softcover are not graphic novels but collected comic books.

The fact that the word "novel" is in the term "graphic novel" implies that the comics follow the structure that novels use. However this isn't always the case.

Icaruss
11-07-2006, 07:31 PM
They're not books. And they're not graphic novels either.

But why shouldn't they be nominated for the National Book Award?

John M. Coker (Johnny C.)
11-07-2006, 08:45 PM
He makes his argument in a particularly high-minded and snooty way, but he's not wrong. They're not books. I hate the term "Graphic Novel," as it sounds like something somebody would come up with because they're ashamed to be seen reading a comic.

No. He IS wrong the moment he implies that comics/graphic novels are easier to create/write than a novel or short story. He is correct in that the two are different animals. He is NOT correct in that one os superior to the other.