Thursday, November 15, 2007

Of Eddie Campbell, Useful Distinctions and Distracting Distinctions

Sigh. After many months of determinedly not engaging with Eddie Campbell about definitions of various terms circling (what I but not he would call) comics, I fear I am about to succumb once more. I don't like doing so, because a) I find Campbell a frustrating debater (who abandons the debate every time I feel I've pushed the issue home; see here and here, for example), and b) because I have so much respect for the man's work that I hate to piss him off on a topic he clearly cares deeply about. But what can I say? I'm a sucker for intellectual debate. So, once more into the wolf's mouth (as they say in Italian opera):

In a recent entry on his blog, Campbell wrote:
Anyone who HAS been reading with care will know that I have no interest in naming anybody's medium and I just stand on the sidelines and illuminate assorted moments of verbal befuddlement, just for the sport of it, and also I suppose in some vague hope that those who write nonsense will start to think more clearly.
I think this is disingenuous, however. Claiming to try to get people "to think more clearly" in an intellectually contested terrain is misleading, since rather than simple clarity, what Campbell is after is to convince people of certain things. To claim to merely be making sport of befuddlement, or to seek clarity, is to hide (perhaps from himself, I don't know) the fact that he is actually pushing a particular view of the cultural world -- one which a great many other people disagree with.

But it's a powerful pose, because it lets him retreat behind the "I'm just mocking" claims when pressed on his actual intellectual position.

Ok, putting that aside, what do I think (I might be wrong, of course, as anybody might be wrong about anything) that Campbell is trying to convince people of? I think the answer lies in an earlier sentence in the above-cited blog post:
I reject the notion that there is a great big shapeless field of activity that can all be gathered under the one name (here 'graphic fiction', a term I have never once used).
I submit that this is the key claim that Campbell is pushing in all of his various discussions of the definitions of various terms circling (what I but not he would call) comics. Campbell wants to draw distinctions -- to divide the sheep from the goats.

Campbell is frustrated about the blurring of lowbrow and highbrow culture (he uses these the former of these historically paired terms; I dislike them, but they'll do for now). His oft-repeated quip (which he quoted in the name of "my pal Evans"), "Did Ingmar Bergman have to justify Star Wars every time he sat down for an interview?", is an example of this. As is this related rant:
Bergman is great, Star Wars is fun. Neither needs to know about or explain the other. My beef: everywhere I go, why must I always have to represent the whole customary f*****g stereotype of comic books? It is tied to my ankles like clattering tin cans.
I think the fact that Campbell has made so many of what even he would call comic books, and that he has made many other pieces of art that others (but not he) would call comics, disguises the fact that he disagrees with people about fundamental issues -- namely, the aesthetic value of (what he but not I) would call lowbrow culture. For example, Neil Gaiman wrote on his blog that "suddenly I find myself turning into Eddie Campbell, and wanting to explain that Graphic Novel just means comics anyway, and Graphic Short Story actually means er, comics". But apart from the fact that Campbell rejects the word comics (in the McCloud-like if not strictly-according-to-McCloud sense that Gaiman uses it here), Gaiman is actually moving in the opposite direction from Campbell here: Gaiman is trying to blur the lines between high and low cultures, between serious literature and comic books, and get people to see them all as similar things -- i.e. why be pretentious and call it Graphic Fiction, when it's all simply comics? Whereas Campbell is explaining and explaining to try to make it clear that there is a vast gulf between what he takes seriously (which he refuses to name, but which I would call comics of serious artistic intent which lack certain genre elements) and what he doesn't -- comic books and comic book culture.

This is what makes Campbell so different from others (e.g. Douglas Wolk, or SF writer and (superb!) literary critic Samuel R. Delany, etc.) who contest the definition of various terms surrounding (what I but not Campbell would call) comics: Wolk and Delany disagree with the lowbrow/highbrow distinction, and see the incorporation of narrative art with both words and pictures (including, e.g., Maus and Campbell's own Alec books) into the realm of seriously considered art as part and parcel of the twentieth century's deconstruction of the lowbrow/highbrow (popular culture/high culture, etc.) distinction. I think Gaiman, too, is with Wolk and Delany on this -- he, too, has no patience for the high culture/low culture distinction. It's all comics to Gaiman, which means that it should all be read and evaluated on its own terms -- not subdivided into highbrow and lowbrow.

Campbell, however, insists on it. ("Bergman is great, Star Wars is fun.") Campbell wants it drawn strongly enough that his serious work -- his Alec books certainly, probably others of his work, although I don't know what he would and wouldn't include -- is sharply divided in the public discourse from his non-serious work -- his Batman comics certainly, perhaps others of his work, although again I don't know where he divides the lines. (A list would help. How about it, Eddie? You've said in the past that Graffiti Kitchen was a graphic novel, and Batman a comic book. I know you've abandoned the term "graphic novel" -- but how about expanding the list? Which of your works do you think of as merely fun, and which of them are (or aspire to be) great?)

What differentiates Campbell from anti-low-culture curmudgeons like Harold Bloom is that he wants to expand what's traditionally taken seriously to some degree -- enough to let in books which include pictures with their words, not only his own, but others that he likes too. Campbell is thus in a bind -- he wants to open the door of aesthetic respectability wide enough to admit some works, but narrowly enough to exclude others. (Of course, he might say that claiming the aesthetic seriousness of all of (what I but not he would call) comics simply disgraces the whole lot -- as seen in his annoyance at "the whole customary f*****g stereotype of comic books" being "tied to my ankles like clattering tin cans."

Let me add with the caveat I've put in nearly every time I've discussed this issue: I love Campbell's work. And Campbell and my taste, when discussing specific works, is probably not that different -- I found his list of worthwhile graphic novels (he was still using the term then) at the end of How to Be an Artist to be one of the most reliable guides to good reading that I've used. But I think his distinction between lowbrow and highbrow culture -- and his refusal of terms which deliberately blur it, such as "comics" and (now) "graphic novel" -- to be wrongheaded -- aesthetically, in terms of cultural politics, historically, and in every other way too.

And other people who argue this issue should realise: if you think that popular culture should be taken seriously, if you are against the ghettoiszation of culture into popular and elite forms, than Campbell is not on your side. The fact that he has made some first-rate popular culture shouldn't mislead people here.

One of the reasons that Campbell's stance is often misread is that it goes against the equalizing tenor of our culture. I remember having the greatest difficulty in explaining to high school students (when I was teaching them history, some years ago) how many of the revolutionaries in the English Civil War could be fighting to widen the franchise... but not want a universal one. Rather, they saw those people who would argue for a broader franchise as opponents to their cause... since (in their mind) proponents of an even broader franchise discredited the more limited expansion that they argued for. It's not a move that our contemporary culture understands easily -- but it's the move Campbell is making. He wants serious readers to take seriously books like Maus and his Alec books and others -- and he sees the means to this end not in the destruction of the highbrow/lowbrow cultural distinction (leaving a big stew, each item of which must be judged on its own), but in the redrawing the line in a different place.

Campbell is annoyed that people use Maus to justify Dark Knight Returns -- he rejects terms like "comics" and "graphic novels" precisely because they muddy that distinction. Of course, muddying that distinction is precisely what I (and many, many others) want to do.

I agree that there is good work and bad work; I just don't think the distinctions can be identified as whether or not something is associated with comic book culture or not. (Even superheroes: Watchmen is, to my mind inarguably, a great work -- all about superheroes.)

But Eddie Campbell doesn't want to be associated with the riffraff of comic book culture -- which, despite his participation in it, he really dislikes:
The issue is not about the words. You can have the words. It's about whom I have to be associated with. Thus, if 'graphic novel' now means exactly the same thing as American style comic books, then I don't come under either of these headings. It's like olympic boxing and pro wrestling. They kind of look the same, and there's nothing against being interested in both, but there's no way they can take place in the same ring at the same time. They are in opposition. So let those terms refer to the same thing, and that leaves another opposing thing over here that doesn't have a name. My pal White and I have taken to referring to it as 'that thing of ours' like they did on the Sopranos.

If 'comics' means 'sequential art', then that's not the medium I'm working in either. You can have the words, I don't want them. The medium I'm in is not restricted by McCloudianism and includes regular panel cartoons and EXcludes a lot of stuff that McCloud INcludes, like the Bayeux tapestry and William Hogarth. Including such things as these comes under the heading of 'The lowbrow colonisation of culture' and is despicable. I wouldn't want anybody to think I'd condone that.
But many people -- including me -- don't agree that to "let those terms refer to the same thing, and that leaves another opposing thing over here that doesn't have a name ": we see them as one thing. We are not, contra Campbell, confused about this: we are disagreeing about this.

(I find it ironic that Campbell rejects definitions as excluding things -- "usually about excluding something, throwing out the riffraff", as he just put it -- where it is he who is excluding, trying desperately to keep Bergman safe from Star Wars, Maus safe from Dark Knight: keeping the lowbrow riffraff out of serious illustrated books.)

In addition to disagreeing about Campbell about many other things, I think Campbell is simply wrong that one can include Maus in serious discussions (in general, not in any given instance) without blurring the lowbrow/highbrow distinction totally -- or if not Maus (which sometimes gets a special holocaust exemption), then the Alec stories, certainly. I think the elimination of the lowbrow/highbrow lines will not eliminate good taste, but will simply let us see good works (or, rather, argue clearly over which works are good and which are not), without being bothered by artificial class lines.

Incidentally, I think that Campbell (or his pal Evans, or whoever said it) is dead wrong in the implication of the question "Did Ingmar Bergman have to justify Star Wars every time he sat down for an interview?" -- not perhaps in specific (the timing of Star Wars and Bergman is probably wrong), but in its implication: high artists in film did have to justify film -- long considered a low-brow medium, and used to dismiss all film makers. This ended not when people defined Star Wars and Bergman films as essentially different things, but when film as a medium accumulated enough works of artistic power that people could no longer dismiss it (and when people who grew up with film became the majority in cultural discourse, too). That's when great filmmakers no longer had to apologize for their medium -- not by dismissing the lesser work as something different, but by getting film as such seen as a legitimate form, in which work of all qualities and natures existed.

Returning to where I began, Campbell wrote in his recent post the following comments on the term "graphic novel":
graphic novel: variously and confusingly used to indicate 1)all comic books, 2)a specific format of comic books, 3)indeed the physical object itself (as opposed to the work it contains), 4) what would in prose be a novel but illustrated as a comic, 5) a new form of pictorial literature. Since it is not much use for the purposes of communication, my feeling is that it's better to ditch the term altogether though of course it's much too late for that. However as an overview, I feel that posterity will come to see it as representative of a certain ambition to make something grand out of the elements of the strip cartoon. Its failure will be due to its inability to escape out of comic book culture.
But I think Campbell's wrong that the term "is not much use for the purposes of communication"; it's just that what it communicates (including the blurring of the highbrow/lowbrow culture lines) is not something that Campbell agrees with. (People who argue that "homophobia" is a bad term usually do so because they disagree with an assumption embedded in it, namely, that whether one is straight or gay is a morally neutral question.) But for those of us who take the highbrow/lowbrow blurring for granted -- and as a good thing, not a bad thing -- it is a very clear term: a graphic novel is a book-length work of comics.*

Nor do I see the term graphic novel as failing "due to its inability to escape out of comic book culture"; I think it's succeeding -- readers who would not previously read books with pictures are now reading graphic novels, reviews are discussing them as, well, just normal books, etc. Obviously there is a long way to go -- and a long way to go to overcome the presumption of non-seriousness that some people have about any narrative with both pictures and words (what I but not Campbell would call comics). But the term "graphic novel", the term "comics", and the blurring of the highbrow and lowbrow that these both assume, is helping, not hurting matters -- and, ultimately, leading more people to more good work, rather than the reverse.

Campbell and I would probably agree that promoting interesting, sophisticated works is a good thing. But I strongly disagree that we should see popular culture works -- comic books, to use his term -- and more highbrow works -- for which Campbell has no term, I believe -- as different things. They are one medium -- just as film is one medium, whether or not it's Star Wars or Igmar Bergman. Bergman may not have to justify Star Wars -- but he's clearly working in the same form, albeit to different ends.

If the goal is to talk clearly, then it's easy... as long as one doesn't try to radically distinguish in one's very vocabulary things-Campbell-takes-seriously and things-he-doesn't in the vocabulary one uses: comics is a perfectly clear term (Tom Spurgeon labels some items "not comics": it's clear what he means and what he doesn't.)

If the goal is to get serious works taken seriously, then trying to say that these picture-word combinations are something totally different from these... and Maus has nothing to do with Dark Knight... is also a totally wrongheaded move. The idea that a medium can do lots of different things is a common concept for people, which they assimilate quickly when a metaphor such as film is used. Whereas Campbell's efforts are in fact muddying not clarifying.

...I could keep going, I suspect, but I'll stop here. I hope my point has been made clearly (and accurately); if not, I hope responses will let me understand where I need to clarify.

(Housekeeping note: this long post notwithstanding, my current blog-slowdown will likely continue for the rest of November, and possibly even into December.)

* Well, there is some confusion, since "graphic novel" currently means any book-length work of comics, whether its fiction or non-fiction -- thus works that in prose form would not be called novels are still graphic novels (e.g. memoirs). Like the fact that "comics" don't have to be "comic", I think this is simply a separate meaning that we should simply use and accept as a new meaning arising out of etymologically-but-no-longer-semantically related terms.


from the sidelines, as it were said...

'which he quoted in the name of "my pal Evans"'

Are you contending that Mick, like the definition of 'graphic novel,' doesn't exist? He does. You can point to him.

Stephen said...

Are you contending that Mick, like the definition of 'graphic novel,' doesn't exist? He does.

Of course not. I just didn't know who "my pal Evans" was, so I put it that way. ("Quoted in the name of..." was my attempt to refer to the Talmudic formula -- which, of course, was used to describe quotes of real people.)

As for the definition of Graphic Novel... I don't know I want to go there. I'd say that there are lots of (perfectly existent) definitions, some more accurate (and some more useful, perhaps the better word in contested intellectual terrain) than others.


Geoff Klock said...

Your post here, in a sane world, should end debate on this topic. You are so clearly in the right here.

What, you know, ON EARTH, does Campbell think of Shakespeare? Because here is the greatest author of all time drawing on popular genres to tell stories to a mass audience with lowbrow characters -- and the work he did is the greatest emblem of high culture. If Campbell was around in the Renaissance he would have dismissed Shakespeare on principle, and insisted we give him a label to keep him in his place, yeah?

Or is that a really bad analogy?

arthur said...

Your post here, in a sane world, should end debate on this topic

No it shouldn't. The debate on the status of "high" and "low" forms will continue, since the issue is ultimately intractable.

As for Campbell on Shakespeare, I'm at a disadvantage here because I have no previous knowledge of the man. But from the post it sounds like he would consider the work on its own merits rather than dismissing it "on principle". If he is willing to divide comics into high and low, shouldn't you expect him to give drama the same consideration?

Geoff Klock said...

Arthur --

I was giving Stephen Frug a kind of hyperbolic compliment. That is what I put the second sentence in for. I see where you are coming from with "No, it shouldn't" because of the basic value of debate and the whole questions are better and answers ethos. And I see that maybe it was unclear that I was being hyperbolic.

"As for Campbell on Shakespeare, I'm at a disadvantage here because I have no previous knowledge of the man." Me neither. We are all just guys talkin.

"But from the post it sounds like he would consider the work on its own merits rather than dismissing it "on principle"." I thought Campbell's principle was "high culture good, low culture bad." Is that not right? So if Campbell was around in the Renaissance with the same set of values he has now, I was asking -- ASKING! -- if we thought he would still say "low culture bad."

"If he is willing to divide comics into high and low, shouldn't you expect him to give drama the same consideration?" By same consideration do you mean "divide into high and low"? Because that is exactly what I expect him to do. It is just that Shakespeare is very hard to do that with, so I was wondering if this is a case that would easily wreck the distinction Stephen Frug thinks he should abandon. I was wondering if he would continue to insist on a high low distinction in that case.

Did I just completely miss the point here?

arthur said...

If Shakespeare can be appreciated in both a high minded way and a low minded one (and I think it can) that would support the idea of him as high culture. Something that could be appreciated in a low minded manner might be thought of just as low art. So I imagine that Campbell would call it high art. So would I.

More generally, I think the high-low distinction has pragmatic value and is thus worth keeping around. Some works of art (whatever the medium or genre) just seem to offer more layers of pleasure and meaning. They require greater cognitive effort to fully appreciate. I don't want to reify this into an absolute distinction, but it does seem like a useful tool for sorting out a big, messy field.

Stephen makes good points though about the dangers of making too sharp a distinction. Certainly the boundaries are blurry and change as our understanding of cultural artifacts change. And often, it is worth looking at high and low side by side.

Eddie Campbell said...

you idiots.

the high culture/low culture argument is going on entirely in Stephen Frug's head.

it has got nothing to do with me, you bunch of opinionated dills.

Geoff Klock said...

I am 100% sorry for getting into this discussion, which I basically know nothing about.