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I haven't seen any coverage of this in the comics news sites I visit, so I'll scoop it. People have been talking about stories and storytelling more generally around the blogosphere, so this  might be of some interest: The British publication The Observer held a "graphic short story" contest and has recently announced the winners. You can read about it and the stories themselves here.

Personally, I find the stories have a restrained feel about them, a sameness in tone (and in coloring palette) that seems to be what marks a comics work as "literary" for people accustomed to prose. I've been getting on of those dreaded creative writing MFAs for the past couple of years, so I can't pretend to have anything against literary fiction, whether it be in prose or in comics form. I think it's unreasonable to expect the literary establishment to take notice of something like Street Angel or Scott Pilgrim when a work like that is not of the genre they cover, though one might criticize more broadly the lack of diversity in the books the mainstream literary media tends to cover.

Then again, comics like Street Angel don't have an equivalent in prose form; they are the kind of stories that don't exist anywhere else but in comics and would probably not work as prose. Coverage and recognition of this type of work is lacking in the mainstream media, and, from what I understand, under-represented (or not represented at all) in anthologies like The Best American Comics. (Criticism of that anthology follows much in the same line as criticism of other books in that series, such as The Best American Short Stories or The Best American Essays -- the works included tend to be of the same genre and reflect the tastes of the editors. This is just the nature of anthologies, but I think it's the "THE BEST" part of the title that gets people's hackles up.) I think what those of us interested in this in comics hope and will try to bring about is that the literary establishment recognizes comics for the unique medium they are and not only when they conform to the genre of "literary fiction" as it has been codified by the literary-intellectual complex (I'm thinking publishers-critics-universities here).

Heidi MacDonald discussed this in a post on her blog The Beat (this link goes to a follow-up to the initial post, which is linked to in the entry) that got roundly whupped all over by some people who seemed sort of pissed off by it. (Tom Spurgeon of The Comics Reporter and Christopher Butcher of Comics212, specifically.) I thought the focus of the post wasn't quite what it could be, a unifying thesis being unclear, and the arguments weren't well-supported, but, man, I didn't get angry about it. (And that's something, considering I get angry at something as trifling as that damned "magic screen" Sprint commercial and am started to get annoyed by people who capitalize the "de" in my last name.) And I didn't get all Modern Language Association on it like one of the commenters, who actually used the word "normative" in a reply to it. Some people just don't get the "use language appropriate to the setting" thing.

But I'm getting far afield.

I took the post it as an impetus to think about what underlies Heidi's frustration at what is recognized in comics. There is great diversity in the kind of stories told, but only the far ends of the spectrum are generally known outside of the industry and fanbase -- there are the literary comics covered by the literary media and the superhero comics covered by the pop culture media who are more interested in the movies based on the comics than the comics themselves.

Some of the commenters in the Guardian post linked to above (they're an amusing bunch. I tried to get involved in the thread I link to, only to get annoyed and frustrated. You should see when they decide to discuss Americans) seem to think that the great, unrecognized middle is a good thing. Creativity can thrive when there is no critical eye cast on it, I suppose the thinking is. But I believe this means, as I said before, that what comics do uniquely and better than any other medium is what goes unrecognized, and it sure as hell is a shame, isn't it? Personally, I see no reason to elevate "underground" comics any more than I see a reason to elevate "literary" comics -- I want to judge on merit, as my tastes understands it, and I want others to do the same. But one can't judge what one doesn't know about.


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 16th, 2007 08:44 pm (UTC)
I've gotta know, why does the Sprint commercial make you angry? I love that ad.
Oct. 16th, 2007 09:01 pm (UTC)
Well, it starts out, "When you were a kid, what did you dream of? Maybe you dreamed of traveling through time..." (or maybe it was space) and I was kind of on board because yeah, I DID dream of time (and space) travel. And then it goes on: "Or maybe you dreamed of magic screen..."

But I never dreamed of a magic screen! But the damned commercial keeps going on about the damned screen, trying to convince me that I did dream about it and that their stupid phone is going to fulfill the daydreams of my childhood. But it's NOT! Ooooh. So angry.
Oct. 16th, 2007 09:18 pm (UTC)
Hmm. I never put that much thought into it...I just really like the song and the visuals.

But to be fair, it does qualify that dream with "maybe."
Oct. 16th, 2007 09:21 pm (UTC)
No. No fairness when you're dealing with illogical hatred.
Oct. 16th, 2007 09:27 pm (UTC)
That would be true.
Oct. 16th, 2007 11:40 pm (UTC)
I don't think your hatred is misplaced.
Although most people probably don't take those commercials very seriously, some do. Some buy right into the message because it touches some part[s] of themselves.
I'd like to think advertising fails on me, but just the other day I left my house at 11 pm to drive down to a Burger King for some Italian chicken sandwich. And it tasted just like a mediocre chicken parmigiana!

Anyway, marketing is a sick, sick thing. And it's everywhere.
Oct. 16th, 2007 11:48 pm (UTC)
In the whole debate of Art comics versus Super Hero comics the person[s] losing is the fan.
I've met dozens of people who said they didn't like comics, to later discover they are fans of Clowes or Ware. They don't consider those comics.
At the same time there are so many people who only read things published by Marvel.

And I wonder why these groups are so close-minded. (And yes, I'm going to contend their close-minded. The only other alternative is that those genres they ignore are just bad, and that I won't ever concede)
We should discuss what creates and exacerbates this divide, and ultimately just hurts the entire medium of the comic book. Industry big wigs and critics can nit pick and name drop until the cows come home, but outside of their circle many people don't care about what's in between. If a big part of your life isn't being a part of the comic book industry it's not common that you'll venture to try new types of comic books out. Getting a newcomer to read "The Authority" or "Bone" is difficult enough--try getting someone who thinks Chris Ware is their god to do it. I've been completely unsuccessful in all my attempts thus far.
Oct. 16th, 2007 11:49 pm (UTC)
Oct. 17th, 2007 12:44 pm (UTC)
I like your last paragraph. I can't contribute intelligently to this discussion, but I know in my younger years (early university) I was a bit of a literary snob, and looked down on "non-literary" books as being less than others. Unfortunately, I also had this shameful love of the comics medium, and didn't quite know how to reconcile that with my dopey "I only read GOOD books!" attitude (I remember sneaking down to the comics store to buy a Powers TPB, and hiding it from my roommate). It took a lot of reading (and the discovery of Bone) to realize how incredibly stupid that kind of thinking was: I'd robbed myself of such enjoyment because I'd automatically rejected something as being genre or not literary enough.

Now, probably because they remind me of my more ignorant days, I have trouble reading "literary" comics (those typically mentioned in these kind of discussions: Seth, Clowes, Ware).
Oct. 17th, 2007 05:17 pm (UTC)
Being a veteran reader of comics I seem to be finding these highly literate comics somewhat clunky when it comes down to actual visual storytelling. Which is a shame because I have no doubt that the two can co-exist very effectively together.
Oct. 17th, 2007 05:31 pm (UTC)
Re: Funny
That's true. I think what might be happening is that all this new "art comix" artists only read guys like Clowes and Ware and Spiegelman and that influences them. The result is kind of this weird, awkward storytelling -- the artists are trying to mimic another medium while not having experience of sequential art beyond that one genre. Superhero comics may be stupid, but the old ones knew how to tell a dynamic visual story. But Clowes and Ware and Spiegelman--they seem to have much broader experience reading comics. They know the visual language. They can draw influence (heh ... draw) from more sources and do their own thing with a fuller set of tools, so to speak.
Oct. 17th, 2007 06:37 pm (UTC)
Re: Funny
Perhaps, like the superhero nerds who only read superhero comics, with the result of horribly watered down pap, some indie kids read only Clowes and Ware and Kramers, with diminishing returns.
Oct. 18th, 2007 02:45 pm (UTC)
Hope you don't mind me butting in to say that I am collating the non-winners' entries on my drawing blog. Actually, if you've read the thread on the Guardian blog, you might already know that, as I mentioned it there, too. What I didn't go into there was how interesting it has been to see even this small selection and to put the winners into a wider context - and you'll see that a wide variety of palettes was represented in the field

(I found you through a blog search on the term 'graphic short story'; apologies for encroaching - I will back off now - though you all sound like friendly folk).
Oct. 18th, 2007 05:32 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much for the link. I'm going to look at all the entries you've collected, differently. I'm glad you commented! It's always good to "meet" new people who are interested in comics.

( 14 comments — Leave a comment )


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