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Let's You and Him Fight: Alternative Comics -- An Emerging Literature
posted November 14, 2005
 

imageThe following is a week's worth of missives in a week-long exchange of letters about issues raised in and around the new book Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature (University Press of Mississippi, $20, paperback, 1578067197) by its author Charles Hatfield and a colleague of Hatfield's in comics academia, Bart Beaty.

Dr. Hatfield is a member of the Department of English at California State University, Northridge. He has written several articles for publication on comics and children's literature, including a long stint as a reviewer for The Comics Journal. This is his first book.

Dr. Beaty is a member of the faculty of Communication and Culture at the University of Calgary. He is the author of the Euro-Comics For Beginners column at The Comics Journal and the Conversational Euro-Comics column here at The Comics Reporter. His first book, Fredric Wertham and the Critique of Mass Culture is out for Christmas.

We are pleased to host their conversation this week and hope it is a model for many more discussions in the future. For more information on the book, click through the above cover image.

DAY ONE

Bart Beaty to Charles Hatfield:

Hi Charles,

I want to thank you for agreeing to be the first guinea pig in this little book club experiment, and for taking the time this week to discuss your book,
Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature. I'm thrilled to be starting with this book because I feel like I've been waiting about a decade to read it. Indeed, I think that we first met at the Chicago Comic Con in 1994, and some of the ideas in here we were arguing even back then. With some luck, we should be able to get into some of the interesting and provocative arguments made by your book over the next few days.

Before we start, though, it's probably best to go into full disclosure mode. As I have already noted, you and I go back a long way, and we used to bat these ideas around at conferences and on the late, great comix@ mailing list. I don't want to be accused of pulling any punches simply because we've been friends a long time. I should probably also note that I'm quoted or referenced six times in the book (yes, of course I counted). So while it's clear that you've used only the finest research, I'd hate for people to get the idea that we're totally sympatico about all of your conclusions. Also, and this might be my own megalomania talking, I'd like to think that I'm responsible for getting the name "Pierre Bourdieu" into your book -- even if it is only to dismiss him!

I think that the area where I suspected that we would find our greatest disagreement stems right from your title, the idea that comics are a "literature" (emerging or otherwise). To my mind, this flies in the face of my understanding of comics as a particular communicational form. Having read past the title, however, we're not as far apart as I might have thought, largely because your book does pay a lot of attention to the visual forms of comics. Indeed, I think you might even pay more attention to visual elements than to narrative ones. Nonetheless, I'm skeptical of claims that comics are "primarily a literary form" (xiv). I'm much more sympathetic to Thierry Groensteen's suggestion that comics are a narrative form, but not a literary one. Further, to my mind, they are much more implicated in visual culture than a literary one.

I realize that your book is far from dogmatic on this issue, but nonetheless I remain curious about that title and how it reflects your intentions. You mention in the conclusion that it was not your first choice, but I'm wondering specifically about your use of the word "literature". Are comics really a literary form in your view, or is the title merely superior to "An Emerging Narrative Form"?

That question leads me to another, which is related to your audience. There are a few moments where your book takes a slightly defensive tone with regard to its subject. In chapter two, for example, surveying the history of writing about comics, you dismiss claims that comics are simplistic or simple-minded. Fair enough, but is it your sense that there are possible readers for this book that aren't aware of that? I know that this book is based on the work that you did for your dissertation at Connecticut, and I'm wondering if this is a legacy of coming up through and English literature department? In your experience, is there still work to be done to establish the validity of the form, or have we arrived at a stage that it can simply be assumed?

I have plenty of other questions about the undergrounds, Gilbert Hernandez, autobiography and the rest of the topics addressed in your book, but maybe we should start with these broader issues first.

Over to you,

bart


******

Charles Hatfield to Bart Beaty:

Hi Bart,

First off, thanks for inviting me to hash out some of the issues raised in my book (thanks to Tom too, for the venue). Your memories match mine: we have indeed been gabbling about certain of these issues for a decade, in person and in the ether. For all that time I've been interested in seeming differences between your take on comics and mine, and, yeah, you are responsible for pointing me to Bourdieu and getting his name into the book. Ha!

Now, to brass tacks:

You've suggested that our strongest disagreement may have to do with the ways we define "literature," and therefore the ways we understand a subtitle like "An Emerging Literature." Yes.

You'll notice that the book's claim for comics as a form of literature is presented in just those terms: I speak of "a form of literature," or "a literature," not simply Literature with a capital L as traditionally understood. In other words, I try to carefully frame, that is, hedge, the book's perspective on literature.

That's because, one, too many claims for comics as literature strike me as anxiously grasping after status, and I want to avoid that too-common reading of the situation (though I asked for it, of course, by choosing the book's title!). In blunt terms, I don't want to make a too-desperate, or at least too-simple, bid for status. And, two, I see Literature as a moving target: the field is constantly moving (just like comics), and so what works within literary study today is quite different, and more diverse, from what worked decades ago. Rocco Versaci made this point not four years back in an essay for the academic English Journal: that we can actually use comics to usefully destabilize the whole idea of "canonical Literature," to invite questioning about how value is ascribed to some work but not others.

So the distinction you've made, that comics are a narrative form but not a literary one, doesn't have a lot of force for me, or, rather, doesn't seem essential to me. In my teaching and writing, I'm open to seeing all sorts of printed and graphic materials as literature, or at least of reading them within a literary context. To me the term "literature" doesn't necessarily imply gentrification or a bid for entry into certain company.

So, why refer to comics as "literature" at all? Why not hang my shingle from, say, Cultural Studies, another recognized academic field? Again, to me the distinction isn't strongly operative, but I will admit that I describe my work differently -- either as literary study, or as cultural study -- depending on context and audience. I avoided invoking Cultural Studies in the book's title because, one, too many books have already been titled "Comics and/as Culture," or some such, with approaches varying from the literary to the sociological to the in-between; and, two, I wanted my first book to be one that unabashedly made aesthetic claims for comics.

Properly speaking, I think literary study really ought to be seen as a subset of Cultural Studies. Among many literary readers, though, I think the default assumption is that Cultural Studies pertains to stuff that is interesting to write about but ultimately too fragile, or too ephemeral, or too rudely populist, to justify on aesthetic grounds. Of course that's too narrow a way to construe Cultural Studies, but I didn't want to seen as capitulating to such a view. "Literature" seemed a good way, let's say an almost polemical way, to take an unapologetic aesthetic or art-first position.

You;ve argued that comics are "more implicated in visual culture than a literary one," a point I think you made most concretely in your recent review of Posy Simmonds' Literary Life for Indy. There you said that Simmonds; visual artistry shifts our appreciation "from the literary to the visual plane," and offer this as dramatic proof that "comics are not, in fact, a literary form, but a painterly one" -- your final point being that proponents of comics as literature have been thinking in the wrong terms.

First off, I concede that comics are more implicated in "visual" as opposed to "literary" culture. Secondly, I think you could make the same argument about literature, if you took a populist, centuries-long view! The image you paint of literary culture in the Simmonds review strikes me as a pretty rarefied one, or at least highly specialized -- and, while I would admit that this image of Literature is the traditional one, it's not one I'm interested in buoying up with my work on comics. To me, the study of literature ought to include the popular, the visual, the liminal and uncategorizable: visual poetry, illuminated books, broadsheets, chapbooks, yellowbacks, magazines, artists' books, art installations, comics, whatever. This comes I suppose from studying children's literature as well as comics; it may also reflect the attractiveness New Historicist work had for me in grad school, during my previous, brief incarnation as a wannabe eighteenth-century specialist.

So I suppose what I want the book to do is, not simply elevate comics, but poke and prod at the whole traditional, hidebound notion of what "Literature" is, without surrendering at all my aesthetic claims for the best comics (and, yes, I do believe in distinguishing the "best" from the rest!). That's why the book's Introduction walks the tightrope between "high" and "low" culture positions so carefully. You'll note that I warn against simply absorbing comics into existing canons of literature without regard to their special nature and origins (that warning is a leitmotif in the book, I guess).

Finally, you ask why I spend so much energy in the book attacking claims that "comics are simplistic," and suggest that prospective readers of the book will already know better. Maybe. It could be that some of my attacks are based on spending too much time with the censorious educational literature of the forties (my dissertation director initially said that that stuff was too "K-12" to be of interest to literary readers). But it's been my experience that even strong proponents of comics (take for example advocates of comics as teaching tools) traffic in unexamined assumptions about the ease, simplicity, or accessibility of comics. In other words, some people try to take the old charge about the "simple" or preliterate nature of comics and make it a virtue rather than a shortcoming. Consider for instance Spiegelman's claim that comics capture the way we actually think, or certain recent claims for comics as a "universal" visual language. I think those assumptions are deeply questionable. I don't think comics are a simple or preliterate or atavistic form at all, and I think arguing that they are, even with the best of intentions, reinscribes a set of beliefs we could do without, having to do with childishness, primitivism, etc. So that may explain some of the animus behind certain passages in my book.

Do I think there's still work to be done to establish the validity of the form? My sense is that the best way of establishing validity is to keep on doing focused, interesting work, to let the larger rumblings about "validity" and "respect" take care of themselves, and to cut the hemming and hawing to a minimum. Advice I'll be trying to follow from here on out -- though I was glad to use Alternative Comics to clear my mind a bit. J

Your go, bart,

Charles Hatfield

*****

DAY TWO

Bart Beaty to Charles Hatfield

Hi Charles,

I knew that I would learn some things from this exchange, but I never realized that I would learn that you once longed to be an 18th-century specialist. I think you'd need a beard.

I agree that you usefully hedge the definition of "literature" in the book, which is one of the reasons that I brought up the title, where it is placed so prominently. You describe your book as walking a tightrope, but I'm not sure where the ropes are attached. On the one hand, you say that you're not interested in "capital L Literature", but, at the same time, you are very much interested in distinguishing the best from the rest -- which is getting very close to slapping that big letter on individual works. I'm not entirely convinced that this is a line that can be walked. That is to say, that once you separate the best from the rest, you're automatically invested in the canonizing process. Indeed, many would argue that this is precisely one of the strengths of your book, the fact that you make such strong arguments about Gilbert Hernandez (and others) as significant artists.

On the other hand, you have an uncommonly catholic notion of what constitutes "literature", which you subsume usefully under "culture". This helps to remove the dogmatism from the issue, I think, but it also raises the question: if so much of culture can be subsumed under the rubric of literature, is there any sense in calling it literature? That is, do we have to sacrifice too much specificity in order to regard comics as a literary form? Once we can qualify wordless culture (which comics can be, as you point out in the book) as "literary", have we lost all sense of what the term means? And should we want to? Maybe I can put it this way: Has literary studies overstayed its welcome? If literary studies is going to incorporate art exhibitions, have we reached the end of literature as a useful concept?

You also concede that comics are more visual than literary, which makes me look like a bully for coming back to it. But I will anyway. Thanks for noting the Simmonds review, but I'd like to bring in another witness. This weekend, Tom interviewed Dan Nadel on this site and Dan had some interesting things to say about the contemporary comics that I think get closer to the heart of the issue. Dan writes:
You know, there's a huge disconnect between Alex Robinson and Ben Jones. I don't think people have figured out how to talk about those two kinds of artists in the same sentence. It's like comparing Norman Rockwell and Picasso. It's two entirely different approaches. I'm not dissing Alex Robinson, but they're just different things.

This distinction is very much one that I see as well, particularly given the type of comics that I tend to be reading coming out of Europe. You cite Stefano Ricci, Jean-Claude Gotting, Thomas Ott, and Debbie Drechsler among artists known for their painterly manipulation of texture. These are artists (particularly Ricci) that I see as emblematic of a very non-literary form of contemporary comics production. I might add Ben Jones to that list, and any number of the Paper Rodeo people as well from the American scene. I agree with Nadel that there seems to have been a divide that has happened between a primarily literary and a primary visual camp. One could, I suppose, say that one group emphasizes the former and the other the latter term in the phrase "graphic novelist". In Europe, I think that this division happened sometime around 1990, notwithstanding obvious "painterly" cartoonist precursors like the Bazooka Group. In the US, I would place the divide later, around the creation of
Paper Rodeo, Ganzfeld, Kramer's Ergot, and so on, notwithstanding obvious precursors like Gary Panter. And not that these terms are hard and fast; there's a lot of bleed between the two categories, if we can even agree that they are categories at this point in time. Nadel, for example, exalts Los Bros Hernandez, cartoonists that I would place firmly on the literary side of the equation, but I don't get the sense that he would necessarily agree. This is one of the reasons that I'm not sure of two things -- whether it's useful to term these works "literature" (particularly given how at ease so many of them look in the gallery and the museum), and whether the literary trend is "emerging" or not (I'll have to pick on every clause in your title sometime).

I think that my resistance to the term "literature" is partly because it is freighted with all the baggage that you mention about high/low distinctions, and partly because I have trouble conceptualizing the writing that I do as a subset of literature. I also know a lot of historians, art historians, and mass communication scholars who might balk at it as well. While Cultural Studies might seem more apt, I can understand your own reticence given your interest in aesthetics, a field that Cultural Studies has long sought to problematize. That's not an easy fit, but falling back on literature raises all those ghosts of the big L, no matter how much you might try to duck it.

Ultimately, though, I'm not sure how much you do want to duck it. As I've said, I think that one of strengths of the book is the individual cases that you make on behalf of various artists. I'd like to talk about your discussion of Gilbert Hernandez, but maybe I'll just ask first of all if you see him as a cartoonist whose strongest emphasis is on the visual aspect of his work, the written aspect, or do you find the question irrelevant?

bart


*****

Charles Hatfield to Bart Beaty

Hi bart,

I like the line about not being sure where my "tightrope" is anchored. Funny, trenchant. You got me!

First off, yes, I am invested in a canonizing process, insofar as I find pleasure and value in making aesthetic distinctions among comics. I thank you for casting that as a strength of the book rather than a shortcoming. In my eyes this canonizing process need not entail the narrowness, exclusivity, or prescriptiveness that so often is ascribed to "canonicity." It's simply a way of recognizing -- of imputing significance to -- excellent work.

For one thing, I have no totalizing ambitions for my canon. I do not aspire toward a single, unassailable master list of "greats" who I think should loom over everybody else. That sort of list-making is fun for parties, but paralyzing. Yes, taste distinctions are at work in my book -- I think you can see a particular aesthetic formation working there, one that favors certain aspects of contemporary alt-comics production -- but I believe little of interest gets done by people who are preoccupied with policing narrowly-defined canons. That kind of canonization seems to me a sort of desperate rearguard resistance to change.

You can tell I like to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to comics, but I'm leery of having my list of greats etched in stone as if to forestall change. Personally, I see building a "canon" as at best a kind of heuristic, an exercise that is hopefully illuminating but lacks prescriptive force.

This sort of list-making has greatest influence when it comes to getting out of my own head and selecting texts for classroom purposes. Building my teachable "canon" requires tapping into my own aesthetic judgments, sure, but doesn't stop there; it's often a matter of pragmatically defining a range of excellent or historically significant works (available works, works in print) that I think I can use within a certain course I'm prepping to teach. The fine-grained distinctions I make in such cases have a lot to do with shaping an entire syllabus, pairing up readings for dialectical purposes, and simply keeping costs down.

You may have noticed that high/low distinctions are fairly muted in all the above. Yes, I make such distinctions, and this does raise the charge of elitism (looking down the long slope of one's nose). I think that's what many readers associate with capital-L Literature. But I believe it's salutary to make such distinctions among comics without letting those distinctions elbow you into a corner. Salutary, because we learn from sifting, comparing, even ranking (and then, hopefully, reshuffling the ranks when we come back to reread the previously-read with fresh eyes).

You ask, do we have to sacrifice the specificity of the word "literature" in order to treat comics as a literary form? Is it too much stretching to find a place for, say, art exhibitions under the rubric of literature? (There's even a suggestion in the above that this roomy view of literature may represent a kind of colonizing thrust on my part, a too-hungry expanding of literature to embrace art history, mass communications, etc. Ahem!)

Let me return to a position staked out with delicacy in the book's Introduction. I state, not that comics are "primarily a literary form" (er, that claim was in an earlier draft), but rather than my book treats comics primarily as a literature form, while acknowledging that this is not the sole nor indeed always the best criterion for judging a comic. I'm particularly proud of those fine-toothed distinctions in the text (as you say, they allay dogmatism), because they all point back to an essential claim that informs the entire project: comics are antidisciplinary objects that invite multiple disciplinary perspectives. They are not exclusively literary, nor are they exclusively visual; rather, they are provisorily literary, provisorily painterly, etc., depending on the nature of one's inquiry.

That may sound like a dodge, but I believe, rather, that it is a recognition of just how interesting and un-pigeonhole-able comics are.

The presence of a more painterly model of comics production -- say, Ben Jones, or Kramer's, or Stefano Ricci -- does not, I think, tip comics emphatically toward a resolution of the literary/visual debate. Dan Nadel's distinction is well-taken, but, for one thing, positing Alex Robinson and Ben Jones as contrary poles in this debate seems like a way of reifying a distinction that is generally not so crisply defined in practice (as you concede, the bleed-through is tremendous); and, two, there exist literary ways of knowing that make a provisional space for painterly work without claiming it exclusively or irrevocably for "literature."

Currently, many teachers of literature are pursuing work in word and image studies, book studies, and visual literary studies, undertaking research on the book arts, on hypertext, on visual/verbal sculpture and installation art, on concrete and other visual poetry. Myself, I would not summarily absorb all of this into literature per se, but comics, most of which are designed to sit in the hand and be read as books or sheets, are surely available to literature. Frankly, creators like Lynda Barry, Eddie Campbell, Posy Simmonds, and, yes, Gilbert Hernandez are such superb writers that I believe an exclusive emphasis on the painterly aspects of their work does them a disservice.

You ask, very provocatively, if literary studies has overstayed its welcome. I'd say, only if we understand the claims of our various disciplines (literary studies, communications, art history, etc.) to be territorial or exclusive. Or only if we insist on cleaving to an aesthetics of purity after the fashion of modernism: Clement Greenberg channeling G. E. Lessing, and all that, so that artistic production is rigidly parsed out into "separate" lots, the literary and the visual conceived of as distinct and utterly non-permeable fields. Where's the buzz, the intellectual heat, in clinging to such calcified distinctions?

Comics go where William Blake goes, and Ian Hamilton Finlay, and Barbara Kruger, and Ed Ruscha, and Saul Steinberg. Literature scholars can go there too, why not?

And we can carry our canonizing impulses with us too, though one hopes not too fervently. J

Finally, you ask if I see Gilbert Hernandez as a cartoonist whose strongest emphasis is on the visual, or on the written. I'd say rather that his strongest emphasis is on narrative, with the visual and the written indivisibly joined to that end.

Can you clarify your understanding of how the "painterly" meshes with, or preempts, a conception of comics as narrative?

Back to you, pal,

Charles


*****

Bart Beaty to Charles Hatfield

Hi Charles,

I thought maybe that you'd place Gilbert somewhere in the middle (that's ok, I do too), but I asked just to make sure that we're on the same page moving forward. I want to focus for a while on your chapter about Gilbert, which is both the longest chapter in your book, and the one that is (literally) at the heart of it.

You make a number of claims regarding Gilbert's work that I find myself in total agreement with, and a couple that leave me a bit skeptical. More importantly, I think that Gilbert himself puts us back on the road around the high/low, literary/painterly distinction, and I'll come back to that in a minute.

Obviously, this chapter makes a strong argument about the importance of Gilbert's work, and I have no interest at all in challenging that importance. I agree that Gilbert Hernandez is one of the world's greatest living cartoonists, so there's not much to fight about. I know that you and I have debated the relative merits of
Heartbreak Soup and Poison River in the past, with you championing the latter and me the former. I'm not sure that my position has changed, but I will say that your case for Poison River here is quite compelling, and you've made me want to re-read it in light of your comments (something I likely won't be able to do until the term ends). So, you've half convinced me (at least) of the superiority of Poison River already. You can count that as a victory.

Much of this chapter is spent talking about the way that the formal properties of Gilbert's work reinforce his themes, with a focus on technical properties like depth of field. You're right to point out that, particularly in the Palomar stories, Gilbert relies on placing figures relationally through deep focus, although I will admit that your examples left me wondering if he does this more or less than other artists. Your discussion suggests that he does it more, but part of me was longing for a comparison here. It's not like I'd want a statistical analysis, but some of the examples in your book seemed to betray your thesis somewhat.

Specifically, the two pages that you cite first (
Palomar 151, 154) do indeed demonstrate the type of multi-plane framing that you say is important to Hernandez' work; Gilbert works with as many as three distinct planes in some of these panels. The next page (283), however, has only one such panel (second panel of tier two), and the next (286) has a couple of them, but they're certainly not dominant in these pages. The excerpts from pages 346 and 351 have remarkably shallow and singular depth of field, as does 423. Finally, all three pages from Poison River have a shallow depth of field. So. I'm wondering if you think that this depth of field, which you argue contributes to building a sense of complexity in Palomar, is something that he consistently uses, or is it something that he has moved away from in later work. Certainly Poison River has a different sort of complexity than the work collected in Palomar, so is it surprising to not find as many multi-planed panels in that work?

The other cinematic devices that you attribute to Hernandez (close-ups and two-shots, foreground framing) are ones that I'm not sure are more specific to Gilbert than to other cartoonists. You're right when you say that they contribute to his overall artistry, but my gut tells me that they're more commonly shared among cartoonists.

One thing that interested me in your reading of Gilbert's work, and something that I'm not convinced of, is the suggestion that Gilbert's temporal transitions are "radical". You call the final page of "Duck Feet", "as radical a move as anything that has come before". That page (286 in the collected
Palomar), however, strikes me as rather straight-forward. The nine-panel grid, each depicting the denouement of the story in relation to one or more of the characters seems very common from the field of cinema. I can almost hear the slow ballad playing a life goes on tune as we prepare to fade to black. I've seen the same ending on a million tv dramas as well. Given how well Gilbert has established these characters up to this point, I don't think there's any difficulty in deciphering this page or establishing the relationships between the images. I'm wondering what I might be missing? There's a similar point about pages 383-385, which you say ratchet up the tension through a frenzy that you call "daring". I agree with everything but the "daring" part, as I think that technique is fairly conventional in the, for instance, the Hollywood action film.

Moving on to
Poison River, which you call "the apogee of Hernandez's art to date", you write at length about the temporal disruption, and the chaos that this seemed to cause in the serialized version. I'm at a disadvantage, because I'd long given up on serialized comics by the time of Poison River, so I only read it in collected form. In that form I found that the temporal leaps were unusual for comics, but I didn't find them as jarring as you seem to hint they are in the book. I think that there's two reasons for this. First, Luba was, by this time, such a well-established character that it was not difficult to place the events, we simply know too much about her already. Second, the temporal jumps are not as aggressive as are found in some films, and, to take a more recent example, not even as aggressive as some television (I was honestly more lost in the first episode of Prison Break, which was rife with uncued flashbacks, than at any point in Poison River, largely because I had no idea who the characters were yet). I'm wondering if you think that Hernandez's play with time here is on the same order as many of the novelists and filmmakers who perform similar experiments, because I'm not convinced that I am. Perhaps a supplementary question would be: Did the fact that you read this work serially heighten your feeling of difficulty? You hint at this when you talk about readers giving up on the series.

(As an aside, I would have loved to have seen a longer discussion of the specific pages added to the collected version and how they changed the work)

You don't have a lot to say about the post-
Poison River Gilbert, which is good for me because I haven't read much of it. What happened there? Has he lost it? Should I be reading Grip or Birds of Prey (I had no idea he'd written that)? My gut instinct is to avoid those works.

Finally, to come back to your question about the painterly, I'm wondering if this is something that Gilbert touches on in what you call his growing skepticism to avant-garde or art school comics. I've heard this skepticism voiced in relation to the
Paper Rodeo/Kramer's crowd by a number of "old school" alternative cartoonists over the years, and it seems to me to be caught up in this literary/painterly division that we've been dancing around. The desire to create a "graphic novel" took on a tremendous impetus following Maus, and many cartoonists have accomplished that (including many that you discuss in your book). But there seems to be a new generation for whom the "novelistic" is totally unimportant. They're just not oriented that way, and their influences run more towards traditional gallery influences than literary ones. It's not that their work is not narrative, although in many works (for instance, Anke Feuchtenberger's Das Haus) they're not, so much as the literary element is minimized to a tremendous degree. Your correspondence with Gilbert indicates that he views that work skeptically, and I'm wondering why you think that is.

Bourdieu (you had to know I'd bring him back) would suggest Gilbert's reaction is typical of a cutting edge artist who is in the process of being overthrown by a new cutting edge. In that case, the graphic novel would be not so much emergent as already dominant, and, perhaps, already on its way out.

Back to you,

bart


*****

DAY THREE

Charles Hatfield to Bart Beaty

Hi bart,

First, a clarification: I do not argue in my book that Poison River is "superior" to Gilbert's previous work, merely that it represents the apogee of his ambition and that it "trumps" his earlier work formalistically, intensifying his use of uncued transitions and his interest in shuttling back and forth through narrative time.

The impression that I favor River above Gilbert's other work (in fact there are Heartbreak Soup stories that I enjoy more, including "Diastrophism") probably stems from the amount of space I give it in the book. In fact the reading of River in Chapter 3 book is the longest, most sustained reading I give of any comic in the book, or at least as long as my reading of Maus in Chapter 5.

Why? I cut out some parts of my reading of "Diastrophism" because I've already been published on that story elsewhere, and I shied away from the very interesting Love & Rockets X (contemporary with River) simply out of fear of over-exhausting readers. Both of those novels deserve further treatment.

Now, I do believe River is an unfairly neglected work, a formal masterpiece and a smart, bitter, wrenching tale. I believe that it holds up well. I also believe that its drawn-out, tangled delivery and tepid reception were the root causes of the "ending" of Love & Rockets in 1996 (though that move was much deferred and Gilbert told quite a few more Palomar stories before the wrap-up). That's another reason why River has pride of place in that chapter: it's the straw that very nearly broke the camel's back. As I see it, it's the pivot in Gilbert's career.

Though terse, Gilbert's comments about this (both to the press and to me in correspondence) suggest that River just about broke his heart, or at least his nerve.

To jump ahead for a moment, you asked about Gilbert's post-Poison River work. I do say more about it in the book than you let on; in particular, I discuss the contraction of Heartbreak Soup after River, and the inward-turning, self-involved nature of some of the later stories. I note, albeit gently, that much of Gilbert's recent genre work is wan and detached, and nothing to compare to Heartbreak Soup. I also suggest that Gilbert's contributions to L&R Vol. 2 are scattershot.

That said, I think both Luba Conquers the World (collecting the wrapup of Heartbreak Soup) and Luba in America (collecting "Luba" stories prior to L&R Vol. 2) have wonderful moments and show that Gilbert remains, as you say, one of the world's great cartoonists. I have to say that, as a reader, I was startled by the end of the recent Luba series, which was acrid and difficult but also fascinating.

Re: my formalist analyses of Gilbert, these are the oldest passages in my book, and after years of repurposing and reshaping these passages I was worried that they would seem dead and void, at least to me. On the contrary, I was happy to find that the formal elements in Gilbert's work continue to hold my interest. I'm glad you had a critical go at these passages, given your film studies training.

You're right that the use of multi-plane framing diminishes after my first few examples, and that, in general, the River examples show less of this than the earlier Heartbreak Soup examples. This is because, as you say, there is a different kind of complexity at work in River. I think the argument about this is pretty clear: the way Gilbert frames and composes his panels is very much a response to his thematic interests, and so we find more multi-plane images in passages where, say, town life or sociability is a strong concern. I would not have readers think that he always follows the same protocols, even when his thematic interests are shifting.

It could be argued that the world of Poison River is much more threatening, and, for all its geographic scale, more claustral and overheated than that of Palomar, and so one sees a shift in Gilbert's methods here. I wouldn't argue that this shift was consciously thought through, or rationalized as such, but I do see less of the unhurried sociability and less of the easy, knowing treatment of townspeople in River than in the previous works. River's a bit of a hothouse, and, as I include several examples from it in the book, they may have the effect of qualifying my earlier remarks about Gilbert's habits. Certainly the world of River is nastier than what we'd seen in Gilbert up to that point, and, as I imply in the book, I think this has to do directly with the book's critique of masculinity (it's a man's man's man's world).

You've asked about my characterization of Gilbert's transitions as "radical" or disruptive, and whether his play with time is on the same order as novelists or filmmakers "who perform similar experiments."

What I'm getting at here is that Gilbert is able to juxtapose past and present elements with greater freedom, or at least matter-of-factness, than one typically sees in prose narrative, because Gilbert's mode is presentational rather than discursive, or, to put in other terms, because comics tend to PRESENT rather than NARRATE. There are exceptions to this, as in the tentative, overdetermined transitions in "The Reticent Heart," or the self-consciously novelistic prose narration of "For the Love of Carmen." But in general he works through abrupt juxtaposition sans textual cueing.

On the other hand, the static nature of the comics page makes these transitions considerably different from comparable cuts in cinema. One is able to read them within the overall context of the page, which, as I note in the book, may actually make them LESS disruptive. In other words, I point out that these otherwise disorienting cuts are made clearer both through the overall structuring of the page and because of the familiar nature of the setting and characters (for seasoned L&R readers). It may be that these transitions are therefore less confusing than, say, the jump cuts in your Prison Break example. (I did not fully appreciate this point until your intervention, so thanks.)

However, I stand by my claim that these were daring moves within the context of comics. As I note in the book, analogies to cinema may take us so far, but of course we're dealing with a different medium here, and thus different potentials and trajectories of development. We're also dealing with work that in some cases is nearly twenty years old (narrative fragmentation has accelerated, perhaps, over that interval, in both comics and film?).

All my formalistic observations need to be taken relative to two contexts: one, the serial comic book medium; two, Gilbert's own artistic development. Hence the denouement of "Duck Feet," which you liken to a rather conventional sort of montage in cinema, comes as something of a breakthrough (I think this reading holds, if you read "Duck Feet" within the larger arc of L&R). It certainly seems to unlock something in Gilbert, something he is later able to use to advantage.

Finally, to your observation about a "new generation" of alt-comics creators for whom the "novelistic" is less important than the painterly:

I do believe Gilbert Hernandez resists this generational shift, and, yes, interviews with Los Bros indicate that they are conscious of losing their "cutting edge" to new practitioners. Their comments about craft, and about the now relatively obscure cartoonists who inspired them when they were young (Bob Bolling, Owen Fitzgerald, etc.), take on a particular poignancy in this light. I do not, however, believe that this objectively shows that the literary or "graphic novel" paradigm is already on its way out. No.

In fact, I'm gonna walk the plank here and attack this idea of generational supercession on three fronts:

One, I believe the more "painterly" approach to comics that you cite, while of importance in alt-comics production, is less significant, and likely to seem far less significant years from now, than your scenario of generational change would suggest. More important IMO is the widespread recognition of the READABILITY and diversity of comics as narratives. People are READING graphic novels all over, among them creators and prospective creators, and that has got to have important implications for future production.

Secondly, I believe that Kramer's and other such productions show comics gravitating to an artist's book model, and that they succeed to the extent that they exploit the idea of the book, of "bookness," rather than a gallery orientation. Graphically, the constituent works in the last couple of Kramer's, even the most exploded, non-linear, and painterly works, are not that radical; their presentation in the context of comics, i.e., their interleaving with comics narratives, is. I don't see, e.g., Cheval sans Tete or Ganzfeld as having a "gallery" orientation per se. Rather they practice the art of the book; their distinctiveness lies in that (though many of the practitioners represented in them produce work that would, and does, look splendid on gallery walls). This is not to say that they are "literary" in a traditional sense, but they in effect participate in a recognizable book arts movement that exploits book form, sequence, text/image relations, etc.

(People, in this connection check out Gene Kannenberg's essay on Chris Ware in Varnum & Gibbons, eds., The Language of Comics.)

Thirdly, I don't think comics have to be pitched as an either/or proposition. My gut tells me that the vitality, the fecundity, of this field depends on its capacity to exceed the kinds of generalizations you and I have been making!

So, I would agree that Gilbert Hernandez sees himself as something outside this trend (frankly I suspect his skepticism is more nearly directed at Ware and his proponents than at Kramer's and its kin). But I do not believe this indicates a general abandonment of literary concerns among today's alternative cartoonists.

In your court, bart,

Charles

*****

Bart Beaty to Charles Hatfield

Hi again Charles,

You got me with the relative merits of
Poison River and Heartbreak Soup - I only make the subtle distinctions the third time through!

I want to start today with Gilbert's disappointment regarding
Poison River, and ask if that is indicative of a change in American comics, alternative or otherwise. You argue that Poison River was just too much for the audience of the serialized work (noting that sales and letters to Gilbert both dropped during this era). My sense was that Poison was coming out at a time when the logic of serialization, particularly for alternative comics, was giving way and when the graphic novel had really established itself. That is, by the time of Poison River in Love & Rockets, it was clear that there would be a better, more definitive, version in book form soon enough, so there was no point reading it as a serial at all. This was something that I was getting at in my TCJ essay about Pickle (which you talk about briefly in your book): the fact that the graphic novel war had been won, but some artists and publishers hadn't stopped fighting it yet. I hate to keep harping on your title, but this is one of the reasons that I don't think Alternative Comics are an "emerging" literature, I think that they fully emerged a long time ago, and the success of Ware, the Hernandez Bros, Spiegelman, Satrapi, Sacco, Burns, Seth, Tomine, Brown, demonstrate this.

Let me put it this way: I think that
Poison River, as a serial, was one of the last gasps of the old model. Even Fantagraphics has largely given up on the serial model (though not completely), releasing graphic novels as stand-alone books (Jason, R. Kikuo Johnson). In this sense, maybe, L&R v. 2 is already retro.

That said, you're absolutely right to want to put your claims in historical perspective. Your suggestion that Gilbert's work looks more radical with regard to the work that was being published at the time is one that I fully agree with. That it has lost some of its power over time is no surprise. I don't think anyone is shocked when they see Manet's Olympia anymore either. Advances in any art are quickly taken up, and thus gradually lose their power to shock us (or surprise us) in the same way that they once did.

The other day I was reading Aimee Bender's essay in
Give Our Regards to the Atom-Smashers, and she talks in there about using comics in creative writing classes as a way to demonstrate "show, don't tell" principles in literature. Is this along the same lines as your distinction between Gilbert "presenting" and "narrating" information? To my mind, such a distinction highlights the relative value of the visual and the textual in comics. I differ from someone like R.C. Harvey, who maintains that comics are about blending word and image, insofar as I think that the visual codes are predominant in comics and that text plays a supporting role. I also think that much of your analysis of Gilbert's work highlights this, so perhaps you aren't far removed from my own point of view. But this is one of the reasons that I tend to reach for my gun when I hear "literary analysis" in relation to comics, although I don't think that you've presented that type of analysis here at all (I could give you names, but I'm sure that you can also think of some of the recent scholarship on comics which, when reading it, you'd never imagine that the work contains visual elements; ie. analyses of Watchmen that omit the name Gibbons).

(This next comment is an aside: It strikes me as interesting that you suggest that the disjunctive transitions in Gilbert's work are more readable than similar techniques in the novel and in cinema because the panels exist in what Thierry Groensteen would call "situational co-presence". That is, the reader can easily and quickly move back and forth between them. I agree with that. But what I'm left wondering is this: In the book, you take issue with the critics who suggest that comics are an easier form of reading than the novel (few from that era compare comics to cinema), but does the copresence of panels on the page, and the way that Gilbert uses that, indicate that perhaps those critics were onto something? Is abstraction easier to decode in comics than in film?)

Back to what is starting to be our main topic. You raise three objections from your gangplank, and I'm going to have to try to push you in, even though I think we're largely in agreement on two of them.

First, you note that people all over are reading graphic novels (absolutely true) and that this indicates that the generational shift is not likely to happen. We're both peering into the future here, so you may well be right, but I don't think that you are. Let's remember our history. When the cartoonists that you discuss at greatest length (Sim, Spiegelman, Hernandez, Pekar, Crumb, Green) initially started making "literary" comics, no one was doing that. Even Hernandez and Sim weren't doing it at first. Thirty years ago the suggestion that a work like Persepolis would some day be popular would have seemed absurd. Your book does a nice job of charting "the rise of the graphic novel" (sorry that you lost that title!) over a long period of time. I would suggest that it's now, artistically if not necessarily commercially, the dominant mode of comics production in the US. It has won the battle, so much so that even superhero comics are chasing after the graphic novel form, releasing things like
Daredevil in self-conscious novel-sized arcs. I'm suggesting that "painterly" comics are roughly at the same point right now that "literary" comics were at the time of Love and Rockets #2. We'll come back in thirty years and see who's right, but, I tell you, when I saw the Blab! exhibit at the Luzern Art Museum this spring my first thought was that these are comics that are intended to be seen in a space like this one.

Second, I totally agree that the new artists seem more interested in creating artist's books rather than graphic novels, and this is why I think that they're increasingly highlighting the visual aspects of their work over the literary aspects to a much higher degree. Artists' books exist in an interesting liminal space, but when I walk into Printed Matter in New York I find that the space is much more akin to a gallery than to a bookstore. Maybe that's just a personal disposition.

Third, I agree again that this isn't an either/or proposition. There will always be room for tremendous heterogeneity in the comics form, just as today, at the triumph of the graphic novel, we continue to get new
Archie short stories, comic strips, editorial cartoons, stand-alone superhero continuities, and so on. What I'm suggesting, though, is my belief that the works that are going to seem important in thirty years are the ones that stem from a more classically fine arts background, just as thirty years ago we might have predicted that the comics that will seem important in 2005 will be the ones that address real life in real ways. That is, the type of cartoonists who you write about in Alternative Comics.

Must run, I have students arriving to complain about their grades!

bart


*****

DAY FOUR

Charles Hatfield

Hi bart,

You're right, I think, that the serialized graphic novel has been outrun to some extent by the all-new, stand-alone graphic novel. This is a development I frankly welcome, for all the reasons brought forth in the last chapter of my book (which deals particularly with serialization and its discontents, Poison River being an especially fraught example). I spent some time late in the game revising that chapter, actually, to keep pace with recent developments.

However, I do think that long, long narrative works, such as Jimmy Corrigan or From Hell or Poison River, still have to be underwritten by serialization. You adduce such contrary examples as Jason and R. Kikuo Johnson, but to my knowledge neither of them has attempted something as vast, as dense and mazy, as elaborately structured, as Corrigan or River. To the extent that people keep chasing such genuinely novelistic stories as a kind of artistic grail, serialization will continue to be a necessary measure.

I concede your point, though, about L&R Vol. 2 being "retro," if only because it cleaves to the traditional, roughly 8 x10 dimensions of the newsstand comic book, a move that I characterize in the book as a bald surrender to the market (and perhaps a nostalgically oriented reevaluation of the "comic book" as such on the part of Los Bros). Throughout the book I try to keep these issues of format and exhibition front and center; there's an abiding economic focus propping up my aesthetic concerns!

Unfortunately I have to be brief today due to pressing commitments, but I have every intention of addressing your other points and examples later. I do want to address one more point before I hightail it out of here: your argument that alternative comics have long since gotten past "emerging." You suggest that alt-comics, far from being an emergent form, are now a fully entrenched, indeed institutionalized form (in fact you imply that today's avant-garde has tired of the GN fetish and is reconceptualizing the form from a different angle).

There's a consideration of audience here. In the book I set out, explicitly, to introduce general readers of contemporary literature to the alt-comics field. The current groundswell of attention from outside comics-centric circles suggests that now is indeed the time of comics' emergence from the cocooning obscurity (or relative obscurity) of the comic shop. Press coverage, for example, has shifted from particular standout works, to trendological surveys, to handicapping of comics' future prospects, to, again, particular works, but now without the same hand-wringing self-consciousness about reviewing "comics." Comics are now, just now, chugging down the runway at full clip.

I grant that in comics circles, alt-comics are not news by any means, but my book sets out to reach an audience that includes both comics devotees and curious novitiates. Devotees will find, I hope, a raft of new observations, guiding concepts, in-depth readings, and critical topsight, enough to make the book illuminating; novices, too, will find a overview broad enough to situate them in alt-comics, but without the cliches and misleading generalities that too often accompany such overviews.

In terms of the economy of literary form (a vein I come back to again and again in the book), in terms of the investment of critical attention, in terms of literary response, alt-comics are indeed a newly emergent literature. You and I have, I think, been wrangling over the question of audience for some time without realizing it!

More anon,

Charles

*****

Tom Spurgeon

Hi, Guys:

I wanted to interject a couple of observations here, as is my editorial right. Forgive me for the lack of citation; I'm house-sitting about twenty minutes away from Charles' book. I'll take commentary from either of you, but I hope you'll consider these inanes bleating handy, potential extras and continue to go at each other. In other words, don't answer unless you have the time.

1) A couple of notes about Gilbert -- it's my understanding that Love and Rockets volume one ended due to production issues. Gilbert simply produced at such a greater speed than Jaime that the L&R model became unworkable by itself. I think there was also some belief that individual issues, comics-sized, would sell more because of the very rigid requirements of the comic book store.

2. I also think that interest in Gilbert fell in part because it was completely difficult to understand Poison River without sustained attention throughout, and in part because their publishers had started to lose many traditional L&R accounts because of the changing shape of the comics market.

3. How much is a literary movement defined by those artists that remain in some semblance of that medium's artistic mainstream. Charles, you tend towards successful examples. Is Chris Ware more important in terms of artistic development than Richard McGuire, simply because of the space Ware occupies? When Spiegelman speaks of his influences, they're almost always obscure cartoonists; does Spiegelman become more important than the sum of his influences because Maus enjoyed cultural currency Bernard Krigstein did not?

4. I was wondering if either one of you would comment on second generation alternative cartoonists in terms of their work being a reaction to the graphic novel model. I think you're both on the same page as to these two generations existing, but Bart seems to think the second group is further along. My impression of the first alternative generation is that you had several cartoonists who more or less embraced the underground guys, or the thrust of underground comix, and then you had the guys we all know about who kind of pushed that away, establishing this graphic novel context which is kind of a reaction to the undergrounds in terms of intention.

5. What will be the lasting importance of the graphic novel when graphic novels diminish in individual and financial importance? What specifically echoes into the next wave of comics?


*****

Bart Beaty

Hi Tom,

Thanks for taking the opportunity to chime in.

Your comments about the discontinuation of the first volume of
Love & Rockets are well taken. If I were defending Charles' book for him I would note that a lot of those type of personal factors that go into a decision like Los Bros made are often difficult for scholars to write about, because we do remain on the outside looking in. Sometimes one is fortunate enough to have creators who will speak quite bluntly, and other times there is a veil that is held up between the creator and his work and the audience for that work. One job of the scholar is to pierce that veil, but it is not always easy, particularly when the artist makes public statements about the work that don't necessarily jibe with what the reality seems to be. At the same time, Charles' book does provide a lot of this kind of analysis in the first two chapters (not specifically about L&R, but about the American comics industry generally), and that might have been carried through more forcefully. Speaking as a reader, I would have liked to have seen a bit more about the way that Gilbert's material sat in relation to Jaime's (what was Jaime serializing at the time of Poison River - I can't remember - and did it serve as a counter-point to the difficulty of the serialized work? Did it reinforce it?). Charles places a lot of general emphasis on serialization, which is one of the strengths of the work, and some additional thoughts on it in this case might have been warranted.

Regarding the issue of ongoing influence related to success, this is really a key issue in historiography. It's a commonplace to say that there is more crap produced than quality material, but it is difficult to get an overall sense of the state of an artform by looking exclusively (or even primarily) at its best products. A large part of the thrust of Alternative Comics, as Charles has stated here already, is involved with the idea of identifying and analyzing great works, which would allow the also-rans a limited space. But your example highlights one of the limits of that approach, insofar as it allows a talent as significant as McGuire to be designated an "also-ran". I also think that this may confer some not inconsiderable pressure on cartoonists to produce works that can, while maintaining their own individual voice, accommodate themselves to a larger framework (at the current cultural moment: graphic novels that Peter Schjeldahl might write about in
The New Yorker). I wonder, also, if these expectations might prove constraining. I'm sure that we've lost a number of important talents in comics because they've been intimidated by the demand of the "graphic novel", particularly if their own talents may run towards shorter works, which tend to be minimized in the current comics climate.

In terms of the differences between generations, I absolutely think that every generation feels a need to overthrow the one that came before it so that they can define their own unique space. Comics has such a short history of cartoonists considering their work capital A Art (or capital L Literature) that this is sometimes obscured, but it is very evident in music (which seems to want a total revolution every six years or so) and in painting and in other fields. The generation that I'm closest to in age is probably the one that were coming into maturity at SPX in 1997 (Matt Madden, Jessica Abel, Jason Little, Jason Lutes, Steven Weissman, Brian Biggs, Joe Chiappetta, Sam Henderson, James Kochalka....), most of whom, despite the many differences between them, positioned their work as something different from the dominant model of the day (ie. Superheroes and work-for-hire), even if some of them (Ed Brubaker, Dean Haspiel) ended up doing that work eventually. I'm suggesting that there's now a subsequent generation that will define themselves as not doing what those old fogeys are doing, just as a lot of the names I just mentioned didn't feel a strong connection to Dave Sim, Steve Bissette, and Rick Veitch.

And to answer your final question, particularly in light of Charles' comments for today, I think that one of the impacts of the graphic novel will be to end the idea of serialization, which is exactly the opposite of where Charles thinks that we're going. It's true that Johnson and Jason haven't done work as long or as engaged as the work produced by Ware and Hernandez, but that train is going to pull into the station soon.
Blankets, a book that you talk about it Alternative Comics, was an enormous success despite (because of?) the lack of serialization. In France, lengthy complex works that arrive without pre-serialization are now the norm (though, to be fair, they have granting programs that can offset some of the difficulty of working in that fashion). I think that in about ten years we'll look back on serialized graphic novels with a nostalgia, and that future generations will marvel at how people ever read stories that way, the same way that we have to inform our students that Dickens once wrote in that fashion.

We've time only for one last set of thoughts, and I think I'd like to hear more from you relating to the issues that have come up today, and which are touched on in your conclusion. And I think an obvious question as well is: Having written this book, where do you go next? What's the next step in developing this literary approach to the study of comics? And what would you hope that people most take away from your book?

bart


DAY FIVE

Charles Hatfield

Thanks for ganging up on me guys. I'm not quite done processing your comments, but here's a salvo, with maybe one more to come:

WHO MATTERS MOST?

Tom observed that my book tends toward successful examples, and asked, "Is Chris Ware more important in terms of artistic development than Richard McGuire, simply because of the space Ware occupies?"

Bart then observed, "A large part of the thrust of Alternative Comics... is involved with the idea of identifying and analyzing great works, which would allow the also-rans a limited space. But [Tom's] example highlights one of the limits of that approach, insofar as it allows a talent as significant as McGuire to be designated an 'also-ran.'"

Points taken, but I must say that I don't think the above characterization of Alternative Comics is accurate. Notwithstanding emphases on Spiegelman and Gilbert Hernandez, I don't believe the book champions monolithic works at the expense of other, less vaulting but still important stuff. In fact I worked deliberately to avoid the kind of sweeping, acontextual, landmarks-only approach seen in, for instance, Schjeldahl's recent and to my thinking poorly researched New Yorker essay. I didn't want to create a book that simply held up for adoration the same old suspects. If I may, I think there's an awareness of the forest -- of alternative comics production in general -- that sets my book apart from those who focus, in purblind, monocular fashion, on a few trees (starting with Maus, usually).

Chapter 2 of the book, which we have not engaged here, draws from many examples, not only Ware but also cartoonists who are considerably less well-known to American readers, such as Anna Sommer and Yvan Alagbe, as well as practitioners who are not known for book-length, graphic novel work, such as Joost Swarte and Mary Fleener. Granted, I don't offer many sustained, multi-page readings of particular works in that chapter (Ch. 2 being a formalist or toolbox chapter meant to open up the comics form as a whole); but I do bring forward a raft of examples designed to create a sense of greater context, and those examples are supported with illustrations and paragraphs of discussion. That these examples move freely from Jack Kirby to Mary Fleener, from strips to albums, from American to European production, is something I'm proud of -- Alternative Comics or not, the book is open and ecumenical with regards to finding good work in multiple genres and from multiple periods. And to my eyes there's no unthinking privileging of creators simply on the basis of their "success" or notoriety, though I do acknowledge that some artists, most notably Spiegelman, have had a tremendous effect on the public conversation about comics.

Take for example Ware. The Ware work that I look at closely in Ch. 2, indeed the one Ware work I offer an extended reading of, "I Guess," predates the monolithic Jimmy Corrigan, and indeed I began drafting that part of the book, out of personal interest, well prior to the rhapsodic reception Ware received post 2000. Of course the book invokes Ware's more recent critical success, but, then, the book also works with some pretty obscure examples of what I consider great comics.

I see a slippage or blurring in the above, from Tom to Bart, regarding the idea of the "successful" or "great" work, as if my book equates greatness with success, visibility, or novel-length heft. I wouldn't want prospective readers to think that figures like McGuire are mentioned but then simply dusted aside. For the record, McGuire doesn't come up for discussion at all in the book, but others do: in fact many artists are briefly contextualized in terms of their practice, the styles they favor, the schools they belong to, the issues they raise. Some of these artists will never be known as "successes" on par with Ware or Spiegelman, or will never produce novel-length work. Nonetheless I think they warrant mention.

The larger issue of ongoing influence, and whether ascriptions of influence may cause us to favor major successes over equally vital but less well-known figures, is an intriguing one. For instance, you'd have to say, I think, that Spiegelman "matters" for the contemporary reception of comics in a way that Krigstein does not (this by the way is not a statement about relative artistic merit). But the suggestion that my book takes an uncritical major-authors approach brings out the snappish in me! Hmph!

I do argue, in the book's opening chapter, that the current comics climate (to use Bart's phrase) favors book-length production, and I maintain that the reception of book-length work represents a significant break from the past. But I also argue, in the closing chapter, that we should wary of adopting critical standards that blind us to the various other forms that comics may take.

THE "END" OF LOVE & ROCKETS

Two points here: First off, Tom suggested that Love & Rockets Vol. One ended simply because of production issues, that is, Gilbert's prolificacy versus Jaime's slower, more deliberate approach. This is perhaps a saner explanation that my rather romantic assertion that L&R Vol. One died because of the reception of Poison River. Gilbert just works faster.

However, the scattered, heterogeneous nature of Gilbert's artistic output during the mid-to-late nineties does suggest to me a restiveness or impatience with what had been, before River, a viable, sustained approach, as well as a need on Gilbert's part for greater flexibility in his work. And the cramming-in of much Palomar material just prior to L&R's "ending" seems consistent with the observation that he desperately wanted to have his say with Palomar before leaving the L&R banner behind. Why was it so necessary to wrap it up before moving on, and why did Gilbert continue to work with Palomar even when he obviously wanted to be sprung from its twisting, tortuous continuity? Why did he, as I point out in the book, wind that continuity ever tighter while trying to make a fresh start? Paradoxical.

Tonally the later Palomar work is much different from the earlier material, and, in the collected Palomar, the absence of Poison River leaves the uninitiated reader at a loss as to how to explain that change. I think that change, and Gilbert's paradoxical relationship to Heartbreak Soup in its final installments, lead us back to River, back to the declining reader response to L&R. As I suggest in the book, much of what happens to Gilbert's work between 1993 and 2000 seems to trace back to River, and to a crisis born in that period.

Secondly, Bart said he would've liked to see more about the way that Gilbert's material in L&R sat in relation to Jaime's. The almost entire exclusion of Jaime from my book (apart from Ch. 3's opening, which prefaces Gilbert's work with a discussion of L&R in general) was a strategic and much-regretted sacrifice, due to space considerations. I had a lot I wanted to say about Gilbert, much of it dating from obsessive readings of "Diastrophism" some years back, and I therefore let "Locas" spill through my fingers. Until another day.

Do note, though, that Jaime serialized Wig Wam Bam even as Gilbert serialized River and Love & Rockets X. Yow! Both brothers were pushing their readers hard right then.

I would argue, in a nutshell, that Los Bros prodded the limits of what was possible in serial comics form, to the extent that their serials became hard to read as such. They found that many of their readers were not willing to go "there." They therefore retrenched. Though L&R was still a sustainable brand, Gilbert in particular chafed under the book's production schedule and needed to do a rash of work that was not directly Palomar-related. I think, in other words, that Tom's pragmatic explanation is consistent with my more speculative argument about the greater effect of Poison River.

GENERATIONS

We've spoken of the graphic novel "generation" as such, and whether a newer generation is now trying to overthrow, or at least throw off, the constraints and assumptions of the graphic novel form. Tom went so far as to ask, "What will be the lasting importance of the graphic novel when graphic novels diminish in individual and financial importance? What specifically echoes into the next wave of comics?"

This raises the question of whether "alternative comics" itself is a generational phenomenon that will or already has dwindled. Are these simply aesthetic formations that will be thrown off through an inevitable process of supercession? Is alternative comics just another "wave"? Is the graphic novel?

Again I'll walk out to the end of the plank and say, as I imply in my book, NO. While I do think that in time the current kissing-booth frenzy for "graphic novels" may subside, and the roar fall to a whisper, I believe alternative comics, the movement if not the catchphrase, will have such long-term effects as to change the rules of the game fundamentally. Broadening the readership for comics will play hob with our sense of comics culture. I suspect there won't BE a single "next wave" of comics that we are able to characterize easily vis-a-vis the previous wave (as Tom characterized the graphic novel movement vis-a-vis the undergrounds). Things will open out, making it harder and harder for us to have the kinds of conversations we've been having here, that is, conversations about generational difference that assume a cloistral, highly specialized field.

What's implicit in my answer, of course, is my preference, frankly expressed in the book, for comics as a narrative and expositional form that reaches readers where they live, a form that concerns itself with stories, ideas, anecdotes, history, reportage, argument, process analysis, instruction and reflection – in other words, my conviction that comics have their greatest impact, not as gallery-ready displays of graphic art, but as TEXTS, by which light some of the current avant-garde comics production we've been talking about is indeed cloistral and specialized. For all their graphic ferocity, and sometimes puckish humor, much of the non-narrative, painterly work in anthologies such as Blab! and Kramer's strikes me as less interesting, and less likely to light fires, than the STORIES in those anthologies. With this view in mind, I of course see the current, graphic novel climate as less attenuated and more robust than our discussions have thus far allowed.

In other words, with reference to our larger discussion of literary versus painterly aesthetics, I think the literary is by no means an exhausted mode. What will echo into the next wave of comics, if there is to be a "wave" as such, will have to do with reading, with book-ness and textuality, with visual narrative as such, and the resulting wave will be, not a radical new formation that wholly supercedes the old, but a recombinant form that will certainly be indebted to the broadening of interest brought on by alternative comics.

In short, I don't see alternative comics as an already dated aesthetic formation, nor the graphic novel as a fad. I see them as rewriting, sweepingly, the rules of the game. From this point forward.

Forward at a gallop! Charge!

Charles

*****

Bart Beaty

Hi Charles,

First and foremost, thanks for taking the time this week to have this chat. I think that it's been really productive in terms of getting a lot of issues out on the table, even if we didn't get everything out there. I'd have loved to have gotten into the question of politics that is raised in your book about Pekar's work - and autobiography generally - although they say one should never discuss politics in polite company, so perhaps it will be for the best that we passed that by!

I'm wondering if, in the end, our discussion will come down to a hoary chestnut like "time will tell....". As in: Is Charles right about the continuing viability of serialization as a dominant economic model and the graphic novel as aesthetic form? Or is Bart right that new challenges will open up and supplant these? Time will tell...

Ultimately I think that both of our positions are very much influenced by our personal reading habits and aesthetic preferences. For instance, I found most of the recent
Kramer's stuff far more interesting than Louis Riel (not that I disliked Brown's book at all, far from it), and that leads me to think that the material is going places. I also spend a lot of time in my summers traipsing around to comics festivals in Europe, where the exhibition of original comics art is much more important than the sale of printed comics. When I see hundreds of people filing through exhibitions in Luzern, Angouleme, Haarlem, and Lisbon - taking in comics in this setting, and, more importantly, watching how a large number of artists have shifted their focus to enable their work to be understood in this way - I really do think that we're witnessing the birth of a new comics avant-garde. It seems to me, for instance, that Le Dernier Cri's publications are now closer to catalogues of their exhibitions, or even aspects of their exhibitions, than they are books to be distributed to shops (not that their distribution was ever thorough in the first place).

If Europe is ahead of the game here (and I think that they are), it is nonetheless clear that the gap is closing between Europe and America. Was it my imagination, or did Tom recently note on the main page that he has trouble keeping up with all the gallery exhibitions of comics art that are going on? I know that I do, and that's something that I'm researching at the moment. I think that once gallery/museum (hello, MOCA/Hammer) spaces are opened to comics, it's a short step for cartoonists to begin conceiving work that is constructed for those spaces. The most interesting comics-related "thing" I've seen all year was Nicolas Robel's three-part exhibition "How Should I Know?" in Geneva and Luzern. Nicolas incorporated sound, film, a book, original art, non-original art, and found objects into his "comics" presentation. I thought that it was fascinating, although as I was talking to Nicolas on the last day of the festival, he was being chastised by some people for not including "enough comics" in his exhibition. I think that this tension is one that's bound to expand. Julie Doucet's new artist's books, which I saw from Alvin Buenaventura, is pushing in a similar direction. I hear a lot of people ask why she doesn't do comics anymore, and I tend to think that's a very narrow, and misplaced, question.

I re-read your conclusion this morning, returning to your thoughts on serialization in particular. When you write that "serialization seems essential to underwriting the production of works in the long form, because it pays authors as they go" (161), I'm very conscious of your awareness of so many notable exceptions, as you cite Jason, Joe Sacco, and Craig Thompson in the preceding paragraph.

I'm just not convinced that this format is going to persist in alternative comics (I do think that it will persist for a while in the more conservative arena of superhero comics). I just don't get the sense that there is a strong desire on the part of the newest generation to start their own serial magazines a la
Love and Rockets, Eightball and Hate. I was in my local comics store yesterday and I noticed that they had, on a spinner rack, each of the issues of Black Hole, while they had the Pantheon collection on the shelf. I thought of those pamphlets, "Oh, how pathetically dated you already look" and I wondered how the store could possibly sell them. They probably can't.

It seems like everything that I buy now in comics has a spine. Yes, it's true that a lot of it simply collects works that were previously serialized, or released haphazardly over a number of years (
Peanuts, Black Hole, Little Lulu, Carol Tyler's Late Bloomer), or is a translation of material previously published (and financed) elsewhere (Samurai Executioner, The Push Man), but my other recent purchases are Night Fisher and Wimbledon Green, both debuting as stand-alone books. I really do think that this is the future of the graphic novel. And to say that neither of these works is as long or as difficult or as compelling as Palomar is true, but then again there are very few serialized comics that are as compelling as Palomar is either.

One final thought that I forgot to mention in response to Tom yesterday. Regarding the lasting impact of the graphic novel, I think that one of the important lasting impacts will be the fact that Spiegelman, Pekar, Sacco, Ware, Burns, Satrapi, et al. have finally succeeded in hammering home the point to Joe and Jane Non-Comics-Fan that comics are a legitimate medium of expression. Comics may have always been a legitimate medium to those who looked closely, but it required the "respectable" veneer of the established literary form to get a lot of people to realize that. I think comics have won that beachhead now, and there's no retreating back into the sea. We've won over a lot of literature critics. Next step is the art historians - and they're an even more calcified lot!

One of the things that I admire most about your book, Charles, is that you are able to make the "legitimating" argument so easily and convincingly, without falling back on a form of special pleading on behalf of comics (which is something that I find in a lot of writing about superheroes, for example). You recognize the gains that have been made and assess the ground that has been claimed, and for that alone this book deserves to be widely read. I think that you've produced a work that will be a model for many of the next generation of comics scholars (and they're going to want to overthrow the likes of you and I now that we're such old farts!), and that's commendable.

As for whether you or I are right in our predictions, well, only time will tell...

bart


*****

Charles Hatfield, to Conclude

Hi bart,

Thanks once again for opening this dialogue around my book. I've learned from it, about comics, about our different (yet I believe complementary) disciplinary perspectives, and even about my own aesthetic preferences and reading habits, which, as you point out, are bound to influence the way I do comics research and criticism.

I too regret that we did not get around to the book's take on autobiographical comics, as this is one area I'm particularly proud of. If I may say so, I like the way my book takes note of and contributes to the ongoing conversation, not simply about comics, but about autobiography in general. And I'm sure that my reading of Pekar, which explicitly sets out to joust with previous readings, could be grist for another critical tete-a-tete. Oh well.

A last note about serialization: I do not aim to defend its "viability"; indeed the last chapter of my book treats it more like an accursed necessity. Personally, I would love to see, and believe I am seeing, now, a shift toward more stand-alone works, as well as a shift in patterns of serialization away from comic books per se to less-frequent album format (a model closer to traditional European BD production than the American monthly or bimonthly ideal).

I also think that the sporadic nature of alternative comic books is inspiring a new appreciation of the comic book per se, as an aesthetic object in its own right. Dig how Clowes cannily exploited that format in the Eightball issue now reformatted as Ice Haven. Dig too the advent, at Fantagraphics, of the "Ignatz" series, with its deluxe presentation of the "pamphlet" format. I don't know whether the price point for the Ignatz books (US$ 7.95) will deter some prospective readers, but I like the idea of something "in-between" that confers a new aesthetic identity on the pamphlet.

Bart, all of your comments re: the painterly or gallery-oriented aesthetic have forced me, finally, to play my hand and state, rather more assertively, that I regard comics first and foremost as writerly texts. I note, in hindsight, that I tried to open this week's conversation with a more catholic redefining of what constitutes "literature" and literary study, but now am forced to locate the heart of my aesthetic interests in comics that are READABLE and, ultimately, open to literary ways of understanding.

This does not mean that I would be uninterested in work created for a gallery space, for example Nicolas Robel's multifaceted exhibition work. Nor does it mean I am uninterested in art books, etc. (quite the contrary). But it does mean that I tend to narrativize when interacting with even the most abstrusely nonlinear, or ostensibly non-narrative, comics. I read them for sequence, expecting them to unpack meanings that can only make sense in sequential form, and I tend to understand those sequences in terms familiar to me from textual study: narrative, reportage, exposition, analysis, lyric. This is true even in the case of radically disjunct or collage-like comics that problematize the very idea of readability. I interact with them as a reader, in terms far different from the way I interact with, for example, easel painting. This was true when I saw, for instance, a gallery exhibit based on Richard McGuire's comic "Here," which was not narrative in any conventional, easy, or readily paraphrase-able way, but which still fascinated me on the level of story, tweaking my interest in how sequential visual narratives might be enacted or played out in actual space (McGuire in essence asks us to infer any number of stories, all overlapping in a single locale, which should have the effect of making us more self-conscious about our own narrativizing).

These things still make sense to me narratively, whether one is content to bracket them within the "literary" or not.

And I do admit that my prototypical "comic," that is, the type of comic that informs my work generally, is still a comic page or booklet or book that sits in the hand and invites an intimate reader response.

Bart, the thing you've said that I find most encouraging of all is in your concluding paragraph, when you observe that my book makes a "legitimating" argument for comics without falling back on special pleading. This is just what I was after, an effective overview of literary comics that avoids simply positing comics as the Next Big Thing and also avoids the facile generalizations that too often crop up in current hype for the graphic novel. Thanks for the encouraging words!

Issues that will haunt me because of this discussion:

The possibilities for (what we've been calling) the painterly aesthetic in comics, and how literary approaches to comics may have to shift or modulate in response to that aesthetic.

The necessity of foregrounding the question of audience whenever discussing scholarly work on comics (hey, I would have written a different book if it had been meant solely for those of us who suffer from comics connoisseurship!).

The ongoing redefinition of literary study in the face of cultural studies, particularly in light of what I take to be a reconceptualizing of the visual vis-a-vis literary texts.

The question of whether, from here on out, it will even be possible for us to characterize trends in comics in terms of a dominant aesthetic, reigning paradigm, or generational disposition.

Thanks again for the heaping helping of Food for Thought, guys. I look forward eagerly to the next installment of this gladiatorial spectacle, the imminent discussion of bart's own book on Wertham!

In the meantime, my own near-term work concerns underground comix and Jack Kirby. In other words, oddly enough, I'm moving back into the past… (though I've got a pot simmering for a long-term future project on self-reflexivity and nostalgia in alternative comics)...

Signing out,

CH

END DISCUSSION