Saturday, June 17, 2006

Rant (On Comics, Reviewers and the NYT)

I am delighted that Alison Bechdel's marvelous new graphic novel, Fun Home, is getting a rave review in the NY Times tomorrow: it's a superb book, and it deserves all the plaudits and attention that it can get. And much in the review is good -- the reviewer captures much of what is wonderful in the book, and his report on his trip to Beech Creek, Pennsylvania is a treat.

But could the New York !@#$% Times possibly have managed to get a reviewer who wasn't a complete !@#$% ignoramus about graphic novels?

Actually, they didn't even need to do that. How about: if they were going to get a reviewer who is an ignoramus about graphic novels, could they at least get him to stick to the book at hand and not make ignorant comments about the medium as a whole?

Where do I start?

It is a pioneering work, pushing two genres (comics and memoir) in multiple new directions, with panels that combine the detail and technical proficiency of R. Crumb with a seriousness, emotional complexity and innovation completely its own.

At least he knows who Crumb is -- probably from promotional material where Bechdel said (as she's said often in interviews) that he's one of her biggest influences and models. But we'll be charitable and assume he knew on his own (from the movie, maybe).

But comics is not a genre! A genre involves a work's content or style -- memoir is a plausible genre, as is historical fiction, science fiction, mysteries, westerns, and so forth. Comics is a medium -- the equivalent of film or prose or live theater. Just as you can have a memoir in prose, or as a live theatrical performance, you can have one in comics. Fun Home doesn't mix two genres. I mean, seriously: people said this sort of smeg back when Maus first came out. Aren't we beyond that now, twenty years later?

Apparently not. At least not in the New York !@#$% Times.

Then there are the actual words. Generally this is where graphic narratives stumble. Very few cartoonists can also write — or, if they can, they manage only to hit a few familiar notes. But "Fun Home" quietly succeeds in telling a story, not only through well-crafted images but through words that are equally revealing and well chosen... A comic book for lovers of words!

I like the praise for Bechdel's words, which is well deserved. But to write as if she's the only one! Has this bozo never read Alan Moore or Neil Gaiman? Apparently not.

So if he doesn't know jack about comics, why can't he just praise Bechdel's work rather than ignorantly talk about the medium?

It's odd that this memoir, a work of meticulous personal reportage, is referred to as a "graphic novel" in the accompanying letter from its publisher — though I was relieved to discover that I'm not the only one in need of a trip to the dictionary.

And here's where he really goes off the rails. Of course "novel" (as I am continually having to remind my students -- a sign that the meaning of the word is in transition, I suspect) means only a fictional work, so that if a publisher referred to a memoir as a novel it would be an error requiring a dictionary. But (as I also have to tell my students -- but then, they're not writing for the New York !@#$%ing Times!!!!) "graphic novel" is an odd term that is not simply a type of novel.

Now I admit this can be a bit confusing. I admit that, say, a college Freshman -- even at an elite college such as Cornell -- can understandably trip over this. But I would suspect that a reviewer for an elite newspaper could grasp the notion that a compound term doesn't always have the meaning which is implied by its constituent parts. (I'm sure there's a linguistic term for this, and probably six different categories that I am mixing up here, so -- since, unlike the reviewer for our nation's "paper of record", I don't wish to talk too long about things I don't know anything about -- I will stop here, and suggest that the good people of Language Log might help out.)

The point is, the term "graphic novel" has been used since its introduction -- literally, since the first widely-publicized work to be called a "graphic novel" (Will Eisner's A Contract With God) was what our reviewer would probably have preferred to call "graphic short stories" -- to mean book-length, sophisticated* comics of any variety, whether a single work or a collection, and whether fiction or non-fiction.

I mean, picking on a publisher for calling a memoir a graphic novel? Where the !@#$% have you been, Sean Wilsey? Memoirs are practically the heart of the new renaissance in graphic novels -- from Maus to Persepolis to -- well, Fun Home. In my recent beginner's guide to graphic novels, I had a whole subsection on memoir and autobiography. And I didn't even mention Eddie Campbell or Joe Matt or Phoebe Glockner or any other of a large number of fine comics artists who've written (often multiple) memoirs. If you broaden out the issue at hand to other nonfiction, you've got superb reporting (Joe Sacco), aesthetic analysis (Scott McCloud), popular history (Larry Gonick) and lots of other stuff too. Hell, R. Crumb who our reviewer so blithely mentioned earlier in his own !@#$%ing review has done a lot of autobiography -- and when it's collected, you can bet dimes to dollars it will be called a "graphic novel"; indeed, I suspect (what with the Complete Crumb and other reprintings) that it already has been many times over.

It's an odd and imperfect term, I admit, since it sounds -- to those utterly unfamiliar with the medium -- like it refers to a type of novel. But it's the term we have -- the "wrong and only name for it" (to borrow a phrase from David Hartwell in referring to another publishing category (really a genre, this time) ill-served by reviewers). It's now an official category in many bookstores. There are magazines and web sites and college classes on the form. It's what these things are called.

It's perfectly reasonable to lament this situation -- or even to suggest another term. But to talk as if this was a simple mistake and not the normal usage among people who know anything about the topic at hand is ridiculous. Hell, just look at the wikipedia page for "graphic novel", which defines the term as "a long-form work in the comics form, usually with lengthy and complex storylines, and often aimed at more mature audiences" and then notes that

In the publishing trade, the term is sometimes extended to material that would not be considered a novel if produced in another medium. Collections of comic books that do not form a continuous story, anthologies or collections of loosely related pieces, and even non-fiction are stocked by libraries and bookstores as "graphic novels" (similar to the manner in which dramatic stories are included in "comic" books).

(Parenthetically, I should note that "comic books" is a wonderful example of the type of term-not-reducible-to-its-constituent-parts that I mentioned earlier. Bechdel subtitles her work "a family tragicomic", playing with the multiple meanings of the word "comic" ("funny" and "sequential art"). But I suppose our reviewer missed that little pun, literal-minded as he seems to be.)

Now, again, I don't actually insist that a reviewer should know all this to review Bechdel's book. Getting a memoirist to review a memoir is a reasonable thing to do. And the reviewer did just fine when he stuck to the work at hand. But why oh why did he push at this issue, about which he clearly knows little or nothing, with snarky comments that simply misled any readers unfortunate enough to pay any attention to them? Why doesn't the NYT have anyone on its staff who knew enough to at least edit these sentences out? Why can't we just get over it and understand that graphic novels are a full-fledged (if still young) medium, and discuss works for what they are and not take potshots at some stereotype that exists largely in a reviewer's head?

Hell, I probably should be glad that he didn't work in a "gee, comics don't have to be about superheroes or funny animals?" line in there somewhere.

Update (6/27): A bit more than a week later, the NYT published another review of Fun Home, this time in the daily paper rather than the book review. This one was equally laudtory (I think -- I'm not going to go back to reread the one that pissed me off just to check!), but this time the reviewer didn't come across as ignorantly snarky about graphic novels. Indeed, the first sentence of the new review is "Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" is an engrossing memoir that does the graphic novel format proud.". Now that's more like it! (Link via Bechdel's own blog.)

(Incidentally, while the NYT book reviews stay accessible indefinitely, I think the daily paper goes behind the firewall after two weeks or so; so that link above may rot soon. If you want to read it, read it now!)
* "Sophisticated" is probably pushing it. But I'd argue that even in cases where the lack of sophistication ought to be obvious, a push for sophistication -- or, at least, respectability -- is inherent in the term's use.

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