Thursday, July 06, 2006

“Comics: Not Just For Kids” should be a cliché.

One thing that has bothered me for a long time is the perception that comics are not a valid art form. I’m not talking about superhero books. I agree that much of the work in that genre is juvenile, and perpetuates a naïve worldview that includes “good guys” and “villains” while eschewing any hint of moral ambiguity.

What I’m talking about can be found (in participating stores near you) shelved under the “alternative comics” category. This is a nebulous collection of diverse works that includes luminaries such as R. Crumb and Art Spiegelman, and artists at their peak like Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, Charles Burns, Seth, Chester Brown, and Julie Doucet. These should be household names, yet they get short shrift. Are Americans really so simpleminded as to freely direct their attention to American Idol and make Stephen King the richest author in the world, while being at the same time dismissive of creators toiling to bring a small audience complex and rewarding stories merging fine writing and excellent draftsmanship? I’m proposing that the short answer to this long-winded, convoluted question is “Hell, yes!”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to engage free-thinking, open-minded artistic types in a discussion of such work. The majority of time I am simply met with a blank stare in return. Sometimes people respond that they are “just not interested in comic books.” Can you imagine saying that you “aren’t interested in film”? Or, that you “don’t care for paintings”? If so, then I’m not talking to you, and you can skip the rest of this entry.

If you are still reading, I’m curious whether you knew that Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize for Maus, which is the story of the artist’s grandfather’s life as a Polish Jew during WWII. Did you know that R. Crumb has had retrospectives in the Carnegie Internationale and on the Guardian UK website? Are you aware that Chris Ware publishes a comic in the New York Times? Did you know that films such as Ghost World and Art School Confidential were based on the comic work of Daniel Clowes?

The comics form includes such a wide range of work that it requires sub-classification. There’s the surrealism of Jim Woodring, Gary Panter and Ron Rege, Jr. There is the literate autobiographical work of Carole Tyler, Jessica Abel, Jeffrey Brown, Marjorie Satrapi and Harvey Pekar. Political journalism by Joe Sacco and Peter Kuper is not to be missed. And this is merely scratching the surface. Yet still the form labors under the perception that it is confined to men-in-tights and the Sunday funnies.

Recent attempts to curry legitimacy for the comic art form have led to euphemisms such as “graphic novel” and “sequential art”. Is this really necessary? Must this work be reduced to pretentious jargon for it to gain serious attention and academic criticism? Look at the Comics Journal message board, and you can see to what lengths folks are willing to go to prove their intellectual mettle on the subject.

Believe me, if you haven’t given comics a chance, then you are missing out on some of the most vital and edifying artwork and literature being produced today. Find an independent comics shop near you, and ask for some of the creators I mentioned in this post. If you live in Pittsburgh, check out the Copacetic store off of Northumberland Street in Squirrel Hill. Bill (the proprietor) is an expert, and generous with his knowledge. If you aren’t in the area, check out the Copacetic Comics Company’s website. ( ) Heck, simply go to your local public library and demand to see their “graphic novel” section. Simply do whatever you need to do to expose yourself to a world that you didn’t even know existed. And then… most importantly… read them, even in public. Ignore the smirks and the ridicule that inevitably result, secure in the knowledge that you are plugged into a substrata of a truly American Art that should be finally getting its due.


Blogger Susan Constanse said...

Well, I can't say that I have delved as deeply into this art form as you have. But I do purchase some on occasion and my husband is an avid collector.

I'll try to dig out some of my favorites and bring them by on Saturday. I like the small editions, too. You know the ones I mean? Just a few copies, mostly self-published.

7:13 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

That's great! I didn't know you had any interest in them at all. What does your husband collect?

Maybe you are talking about minicomics? This phenomenon is somewhere in between a zine and a comic, and deserves an entire blog post of its own. I'd love to take a look at the ones you have.

10:45 AM  
Anonymous Andrew Dimitt said...

I found your blog during a bit of google ( re )search - "typical American male", which brought up your post titled, " The Butt-Sniffing, Pack Mentality of the Typical American Male." :)
that prompted me to read more of your posts until I happened upon this one, and decidedly bookmarked your blog with a grin.

2:17 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Welcome Andrew... Writing this blog sometimes feels like shouting into a vast empty space. I appreciate that you took the time to let me know that you read it.

6:54 PM  

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