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Let's Hear It For the Comic Book -- Random Thoughts For a More Considerable Essay Later On
posted January 30, 2005
 

It was on John Romita's 75th birthday last week that I realized how much I prefer the North Amercan comic book format -- a.k.a. "pamphlets," "floppies," and "everything that's holding us back" -- to graphic novels, particularly collections of serial work. I think this puts me at odds with nearly everybody I know in the comic book industry, even on a casual level, so I hope you'll permit me a moment to explain.

What confirmed my loyalty to the much-maligned format was making sense out of battery of emotions I enjoyed while looking for a piece of art to celebrate Mr. Romita's birthday on the front page of my web site. Because of the collector's market, cover images are much more prevalent than interior art, and therefore they're that much easier to nick if you're in a hurry and don't want to find the work in question yourself. I had recently re-read the contents of these comics issues in the rather turdish-looking but wonderfully cheap Essential volumes. But upon looking at so many enjoyable pieces of art like this:

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And this:

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And this:

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I suddenly felt like I had only received some unfair percentage of the total reading experience. I felt like I wanted to read these comics for the first time even though I had already read them twice.

I know that I always had strong feelings in this direction, but I kind of dismissed it as nostalgia. It's true upon reviewing this year's tax receipts that this impulse has showed up a lot more in my recent comic book buying habits. I've been trying to buy Jack Kirby-drawn comics for a few years now, and my small collection greatly emphasizes the comic books to the collected editions, even when those collections have been done really well. Shortly after interviewing Ed Brubaker, I found myself buying some of his comics, but except for Scene of the Crime I stuck to serial format comic books. I've never purchased an Evan Dorkin collection, nor an Adrian Tomine, and none of the more recent Joe Matt. I can't remember ever buying a graphic novel in San Diego, but I've bought a few comics there, more every year.

What last week's moment staring at John Romita comics suggested to me is that though it should never be indulged, nostalgia needn't always be dismissed. Certain memories stick with us because they contain clues to certain pleasures in which we don't engage anymore. There's something about the whole experience of reading comics when you're a kid that sticks with many people the same way people get used to enjoying theater a certain way, or movies -- for instance, I personally don't know anyone who has ever consumed a Bit O'Honey or chomped on a Milk Dud outside of a shopping mall cinema. There's even a certain kind of genre literature I can read and immediately feel the press of my neighbor's summer hammock against my elbows and back. This freqentlyignored sense memory surrounding comic books people take as the whole ball of wax when what's important, I think, is how those feelings are connected to a way of immersing yourself in certain kind of experience that can greatly emphasize or even stand in for our experience with the content of that art. Very few writers on the medium talk about this, but there's a swagger to junk comics that can be very appealing, a knowledge and assurance that they'll be hitting all the right buttons, pleasure centers that have very little to do with artistic quality. When people ask why comic book aren't as popular as they used to be, it's probably good to remind them that nothing ever is and then, maybe, to suggest it's not that other media do what comics used to do but do it better; it's that they bother to do it at all now and in fact do it with greater frequency. So many of us were sent plunging into comics to find more of what we know we liked. I can't imagine anyone having to leave one form for another just to get that pulpy fix.

I'm rambling; please forgive me.

The thing is, this sensation as I experience it is not solely related to pulp adventure comics. I remain thrilled by books that embrace a bookstore-ready format with grace and class. I'm thankful that the works of significant artists like Jaime Hernandez are done in a way they no longer come with a big, arbitrary number on them. The new collection of David B.'s L'Ascension du Haut Mal albums looks thrilling and no doubt holds together magnificently well. Yet while I enjoyed Chester Brown's The Little Man -- a book never recognized for its imiportance in the recent wave of bookstore-ready comics -- I fell for the series Yummy Fur. It's not just the appeal of serial literature, either. I always preferred to read Saul Steinberg's books over seeking him out in the New Yorker; always liked the Peanuts and Thimble Theatre books than reading to reading strips in the paper or with old clippings. My interest in Chester Brown's serial comics stayed just as strong during one-shot issues as it did during the loopy carnival ride anchored by Ed the Happy Clown. So what is it I'm reacting to? My best guess is that there must be something about meeting an artist working at their most immediate that's exciting in a way that's nearly impossible to experience in other art forms. The only thing that comes close may be following a play through workshops and into its final, published form, but not many of us get a chance to do that. Should comics be so quick to throw that away just because some of them work well under one volume?

There are other joys to comic books, simpler and less elusive to grasp. It's easier to physically manipulate comic books while you read them, and thus easier to read them wherever you'd like. They're familiar to other people in that form yet odd to actually have in your hands. The covers, especially with the older books, can add to the pleasure of the experience the same way I would have been thrilled, once upon a time, to get a piece of art for every song on a CD or a book cover for every chapter of a novel. It's much easier and cheaper to sample a bunch of new works across a single moment in time, building your own "anthology of right now" at the comics shop. Comic books can in most cases be released with greater frequency.

You might be able to argue -- I'd listen -- that many comics have a disciplined intensity to them mostly because format so long enforced a way of telling stories that brought with it a certain sort of immediacy, or, if you prefer, a certain number of payoffs per certain number of pages. That's why it's noticeable when people start creating for publication with a spine. When Dave Sim started doing Cerebus with the collections obviously driving the economic and artistic wagon, one reason it became much tougher to stick with the individual comic books is because they were no longer functioning well as issues, as stand-alone works of art, on any level. I read cartoonists like Seth and so much depends on the eventual payoff that I can't even begin judge their serial works, and sometimes wonder why they exist.

Well, I'm not dense; the reason some books exist in multiple formats is because of money. There are enough people willing to buy in both formats that you'd almost be silly not to publish that way if the artist in question has any sort of audience at all. Conversely, the largely artificial back-issues market keeps many of us from experiencing comic stories in an array of installments unless we're willing to pay through the nose. That's really weird, by the way. If that arrangement makes sense to you, consider it from another perspective. Most comics are more easily available to read in the form that suggests permanence rather than the one that screams disposability.

It stands to reason that the more casually intended art, art where the bulk of what's produced emphasizes an immediate, surface reward rather than a slow-building, long-term, deeper pay-off, will suffer as a natural delivery system for that kind of work falls out of favor. Could that be why of all the comic books out here, superhero books are doing the worst job of finding their potential audience? I know it's why most superhero comics seem to me really ill served by their collections. Very few artists and writers are as clever as Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons were in Watchmen to make the experience of picking up and settling into a comic book part of the story; even fewer are genuinely skilled at making longer narratives pay off and sustaining tone. Comics are such a strangely stylized art form that having blunt, regular narrative interruptions may be the straw that breaks the camel's back, at least as far as most camels get to lay claim to novel status.

The most recent solution seems to be extending what used to be a 32-page story into 192 pages or more, thus punting on the serial experience altogether, except perhaps for those brave souls who enjoy immersing themselves midstream (bewilderment always feels like excitement when you're young) and/or have an enthusiast's need to see the work as early as possible. One has to admit, though, this may be the Gordian solution to how one makes these formats work. As that model spreads, perhaps by financial necessity and perhaps as the natural evolution of a company-driven trend, it should be interesting to watch if the better writers all move to this model if they adjust their chapter to chapter work to emphasize points within the narrative rather than at either end.

If nothing else, I can say that I've re-discovered my favorite format for comics just as the drive to collection makes many of them more affordable than they've been in years. On that level, at least, I'm loath to share my enthusiasm for the way comics used to look over the way they sometimes look now. I can only hope that enough people agree with me that they'll continue to exist this way, but not so many I can't find them. There's nothing wrong with an art form that you can roll up and shove in your pocket, particularly when it's the only one that allows you that pleasure.