Jokes and Contempt

PBS: Although for years comics have been denigrated as a so-called "low art" category, it appears they're becoming more widely accepted and perhaps even validated as a form of art and a long literary narrative. Would you agree with this? Is "form" the right word here? Do you think that this kind of validation is inhibiting in any way, that comics are in danger of becoming less rebellious or creatively free because they're more accepted and being published in the mainstream?

Chris: "Form" seems fine, and sometimes I use the word "language," and while I am genuinely happy that I don't have to explain that I'm not an animator anymore when someone asks me what it is I do, I do worry that beginning cartoonists could feel somewhat strangled by the increasing critical seriousness comics has received of late and feel, like younger writers, that they have to have something to "say" before they set pen to paper. Many cartoonists feel even more passionate about this idea than I do, vehemently insisting that comics are inherently "non-art" and poop humor or whatever it is they think it is, but that attitude is a little like insisting that all modern writing should always take the form of The Canterbury Tales.

I'm all for anything and everything in comics; I started drawing them with the specific goal of finding out whether or not they were capable of expressing things other than jokes and contempt. To me, Robert Crumb is a perfect artist because he's one of the most visually sensitive people alive yet he's widely also known as one of the world's great curmudgeons, simply because his emotional range is so wide and his ability to see the world so perspicacious; all artists should hope to be so pluralistic. I do worry that museum shows and literary magazine appearances might start to cloud the general readership's ability to see comics clearly, as anything that's presented as high art immediately blurs a viewer's perceptions with thinking and theory, but I think it also means that more talented and thoughtful people will be attracted to it as a medium.

-Chris Ware, interviewed at pbs.org

The above sentence in (my) italics says basically what I had been hoping for the last several months to say in an essay. I posted this quote from Seth to show how this attitude (somewhat caricatured by Ware) has been around for at least 10 years, but probably for a long time. Maybe Kurtzman's generation argued about it too. Maybe Topffer's. For sure it descends to us from Crumb, who contained it all within himself. He's like the Plato or the Shakespeare. I think Ware describes him very well as "pluralistic," though Crumb seems to be very uncomfortable with any critical seriousness applied to comics and would be the first to make fun of it all. It's in the nature of comics that makes it very difficult to take it all too seriously. It's a weakness and a strength.

What about Art Spiegelman’s work, which you’ve parodied several times?

RYAN: I do appreciate the comic magazine Raw that he put out in the ‘80s. I was a fan of that. Maus, I just thought was okay. Other than that, I guess, I kind of dislike the drive to make comics fine art and fine literature that he seems to promote.

What type of comics are you trying to promote?

RYAN: The other end of the spectrum. I’m doing trashy, weird, crazy, strange, bizarre, disgusting, filthy, horrible stuff that you wouldn’t see in a museum.

-Johnny Ryan interviewed at Wizard


Brian said...

Not to sound too ignorant or brazen, but where do you stand? It would seem like you're leaning towards the more literary sphere, but I find your work a lot more entertaining than Seth's. And you've expressed an admiration for the Paper Rad kids and there's a certain sense of aesthetic play at work- It could just be that you have a tendency towards experimentation rather than grand statements, and that's the type of thing that maybe positions you against the more hard-line proponents of literary comics while stopping you from making any actual condemnations.

I ask because of the tendency to just present quotes like Johnny Ryan's free from comment, or the earlier post with the Seth quote that was also comment free.

Sorry, this might not be too clear, due to the humidity of the room in which I type. (It might also be the fact that your opinion is actually quite clear but I disagree with it and so want a further articulation.)

w said...

Amen Kevin, comics can hold whatever we put ino it. So yes to poop humor, but also yes to villanelles.

Kevin H said...

Brian, I'm not ignoring you and I'll try to come up with an answer soon.

Kevin H said...

Sorry about the delay. I wanted to get my thoughts straight, and then there were too many to straighten out, and then there was finishing up projects and a week vacation and then the San Diego Comic-Con (at which, while being introduced to Eddie Campbell he said, "yes, 'the Balloonist,'" and my brain short-circuited.)

So...first of all, I think you have "literary" mistaken with "boring"? I don't stand with boring and I don't think Seth does either. As far as literary vs. graphical I'd say both and neither. Obviously my own comics are pretty literary, but I wouldn't fight anyone about the literary approach (plot, character, story) being better somehow than the drawing-driven comics. Something I miss however in work that comes out of the Panter school is the representation of human beings that you get in fictional realism. It's interesting that Panter is doing Dante. Sammy did Guy de Maupassant, Gabrielle Bell did Kate Chopin, later Clowes is Nabokovian on purpose. Character is not what the Panter school is after and I don't expect them to be--they're after other things and I love those comics too. But my literary bent is because of my personality and background and interests. I get most of my art vitamins from reading books (just finished Huckleberry Finn again today and started on Amy Hempel's Dog of the Marriage), and I nearly never go to galleries, and I used to not even watch many movies until the last year or so. It's probably clear from my poor drawing skills, but I don't draw very often unless I'm working on a comic.

As far as jokes vs. seriousness...comics coming as they do out of the "low" arts and especially the dirty, caricaturing, satirical side of things up through MAD and Crumb there's a valuable tradition of the underdog outsider in comics that'll always keep cartoonists who are self-consciously post-Crumb embarrassed about being too respectable. As I said, I think it's both a strength and a weakness. All great art comes from outside, says "no."

Of course what's ridiculous is any sense that comics should be one thing or the other, the sense that something is more "pure" comics than something else. You hear this from time to time. One might prefer one or the other school of comics because of one's personality or relationship with one's parents or whatever... But if we can enjoy country and krautrock and jazz why not the varieties of comics?

Who are the "hard-line proponents of literary comics" and who is making "condemnations?"