Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Graphic Novel, An Introduction by Jan Baetens and Hugo Frey

Jan Baetens and Hugo Frey, The graphic Novel, An Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 2015 (cover by Chris Ware).

Maybe it's my fault, but I expected so much from two of the comics scholars that I respect the most that I can't avoid feeling deeply disappointed. I just read 133 of this 258 page book and the least that I can say is that I'm not impressed, far from it. 

I understand the need not to be an essentialist, I really do, being a non-essentialist myself, but Baetens and Frey exploded the definition of graphic novel so much that it became unrecognizable. According to Baetens and Frey, from newspaper comics ("Terry and the Pirates"? Please!) to underground comics (Robert Crumb? Come on!) to you name it, everything is, or can be, a graphic novel or a proto graphic novel. Sometimes "graphic novel" seems just to mean "serious comics," other times "graphic novel" seems to mean "not traditional comics - in the formal sense." This happens because they commit what is, in my view, a capital aesthetic sin: they separate form from content. Isn't it possible that the two categories annul themselves? How can a conventional genre melodrama action story be a graphic novel if, according to the authors in the Intro, "[in graphic novels] [c]ontent matter is "adult," not in the sense of pornographic, but in the sense of "serious" and too sophisticated - or simply uninteresting - for a juvenile audience [...]" (10)? Considering the work of Frank Miller as serious and sophisticated in the next sentence defies all meanings of those words and it's a symptom of what's profoundly wrong with this book.

Since I believe that the use of the expression "graphic novel" is, since 2001 at least, but even before that if we consider Will Eisner's ideas about the expression, simply a P. R. method to allow boutique publishers' access to bookstores and the general reading public (escaping the comic book fanboy subculture as practiced in the direct market ghetto; a ghettoized subculture that ghettoized them), I don't believe that there's any reason to think that a graphic novel is not a comic. I disagree with Baetens and Frey when they say that the graphic novel is a medium (8). The medium is comics, the graphic novel is a P. R. clever tactic, as I said above, and a format: the one-shot paperback or hardback book (as opposed to series published in pamphlets or newspaper pages).

The "serious" content is indeed a problem because we can't base anything on content. Can't there be a comical graphic novel? Are there graphic novels for children? The answer is yes, and, yes, because all this backfired as it always happens when corporations co-opt (as they always do) the independents' small victories. To my eyes a superhero graphic novel or a fantasy sword & sorcery graphic novel is both unthinkable and perfectly natural. It's unthinkable for publishing policy reasons, it's perfectly natural because everything fits between a cover and a back cover. Since this blog is what it is you know where my heart lies.

Anyway, going back to The Graphic Novel, An Introduction, the authors contradict themselves yet again when they say (23):
The very existence of the label "graphic novel" enables modern readers to reinterpret works and models of the past that had not been read as such but that clearly belong to the same universe.
This [David Beronä's exploration of the woodcut novel tradition and Jonathan Lethem's fascination with the Fantastic Four] does not mean that one should be anachronistic [...].
I agree with the first assessment and Baetens and Frey must agree too, since they wrote it. But it seems to me that they want to have their cake and eat it too. I won't even comment that Fantastic Four bit.

Part one of the book is a supposedly historical contextualization of the graphic novel beginning in 1945. I almost wrote "arbitrarily beginning," but then I remembered that this book is U.S.A. centered, so, maybe the post-WWII years is not a bad place to start. Again, this is not much more than another history of the American comic book with yet another reference to Fredric Wertham and yet another overrating of EC Comics, etc... etc... and not a word about East of Fifth by Alan Dunn (1948) or any other important graphic novels like To the Kwai - And Back by Donald Searle (1986). In case that you're wondering, no, I'm not being anachronistic. Here's what John Crosby wrote in 1948:
[...] "East of Fifth" by Alan Dunn, a cartoonist who is also a subtle and polished writer, is the story of twenty-four hours in the life of a large, fashionable Manhattan apartment house and, of course, of its occupants, told in cartoons with accompanying text.
I bring it up here because Mr. Dunn's book may well be a brand new art form, a sort of sophisticated, literate extension of the comic books, rather horrifying in its implications to writers unable to draw. This isn't the first book in which cartoons and text tell a complete story but, to my knowledge it's the first time anyone has attempted serious literature in this field. 
Talk about knowledge without concept!
There's no doubt in my mind that Justin Green's groundbreaking Binky Brown book is crucial in this story, but what are other underground comics doing here, Robert Crumb's and Art Spiegelman's included? And what about superhero comics? Do we really need yet another official, corporate bowing, history of comic books? In a supposedly historical contextualization of graphic novels, no less? Does this happen in the literary or visual arts fields?

Why is it that the authors don't report a detailed Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly publishing history? Why isn't Debbie Drechsler even mentioned? Because Howard Chaykin (mentioned four times) or Michael Chabon (mentioned eleven times!) are more important to the history of the graphic novel than her? Why is Lynda Barry barely mentioned (once!)? And what about John Porcellino and Mat Brinkman? Is this the world upside down?

Talking about upside down, what is the stupidest television show ever created, 1960s Batman, doing in a historical context of the serious graphic novel? And what about Pop Art? What's an art movement about our media saturated frivolous world doing in a historical context of the serious graphic novel? It's there because Roy Lichtenstein appropriated a few comic book panels?

At least Raw magazine is put in its appropriate place as an important and pivotal moment in the graphic novel movement. Not because of its publishing history ("Maus" pre-publication excluded - it was a magazine and an anthology, after all), but because of what Raw Books published over the years. Ditto Harvey Pekar even if he just wrote short stories until he appallingly jumped into the graphic novel wagon.

Baetens and Frey have a peculiar meaning for the word "coined." Twice do they use it in their strange way. On page 69 they say "R. C. Harvey underlines that it was Richard Kyle who first used the phrase "graphic novel"." So, they know the truth. Why do they say, then, on page 22 "the term was coined in the late 1970s by Will Eisner, among others, although he was not the first to use it [...]."? Will Eisner coined something that he didn't coin? I'm definitely confused! On page 128 it's written: "closure (a term coined by Scott McCloud [...]." How is this possible if "closure," as used by McCloud, comes from the Gestalt theory?

Another related problem is this one (107): "[...]Fresnault-Deruelle's pioneering discussion of linearity versus tabularity[...]." How is it pioneering if it's a swipe from Gérard Genette (Figures III, 77) as pointed out by Clare Tufts (European Comic Art # 1, 47, a magazine edited by, among others, Hugo Frey!)? 

Winsor McCay, "Little Nemo In Slumberland" Sunday page, February 2, 1908 (part of the Befuddle Hall sequence). 
In his book Case, planche, récit [panel, page, narrative] Benoît Peeters said that the above page has what he calls a productive layout (the characters' transformations follow the shape of the panels). Is it a productive page or is it a rhetorical one (the panel shape adapts to the characters' movements)? No one can decide, of course...

Part one of this review was about the Intro and "Part One: Historical Context." Now I want to add a few comments about "Part Two: Forms."

Things improve in part two, I'm glad to say. At first it's just a new attempt (after Thierry Groensteen and Joshua Caldwell) to improve Benoît Peeters' pioneering taxonomy of the page layout. I know that Peeters' theory has a few flaws (to put it mildly, namely, calling "decorative" to one of his four conceptions of the page or saying that the regular grid is conventional, among other problems that lead to serious doubts about where to include a certain layout or, as Thierry Groensteen put it, lead to a page belonging to more than one category at once). All that said, it still is the most useful categorization of page layouts, in my opinion (I'll explain why on some other occasion)... Baetens and Frey want to avoid formalism coupling page layout with narrative content (I doubt that, at least in good comics, the former is independent from the latter - it's that form and content split again!)...

Chapter six, the best one in the book, in my opinion, draws (no pun intended) on Philippe Marion's concept of graphiation as explained by the authors in page 137 (a good decision because I seriously doubt that most readers know what graphiation is - Marion's book is, perhaps, the out-of-printest of all the out-of-print books about comics). This chapter is also about word and image relations. Baetens and Frey don't develop the topic much and the slippage into literary adaptations is not the most interesting road, in my view. It's OK though and I have just one more remark: why use the abstruse word "grammatextuality" to explain the visual in written (or drawn) words if there's an older, perfectly useful, if not much less abstruse expression, by C. S. Peirce: iconic-diagrammatic?

The next chapter could be about narratology, but it only mentions it tangentially. It is about the importance of the setting and space in comics instead. Characters are also mentioned, but what bothers me in this section of the book is the authors' endorsement of an essentialist text by Charles McGrath after being radically non-essentialists at the beginning of the book (pages 177, 178). Fortunately they are a bit more cautious a few lines further (179, 180):
Perhaps graphic novels are more appropriate to tell this or that kind of story, and to do it this rather than that way [really?], but it is important to avoid any overgeneralization beyond our contextual discussion offered earlier herein [...].
Chapter seven ends with an examination of abstract comics (did I ever mention that I was the first critic to talk about abstract comics?) and what Lev Manovich named "the database." If you look here you will find out that that's exactly what I called the locus (unfortunately Baetens and Frey don't read this blog and, even if they did, there's a dogma in academia that forbids quoting blogs at all costs; even if it means plagiarizing):
I also want to put a geometry concept on the comics theory table (Hokusai loved geometry, by the way...): the idea of locus (the totality of all points, satisfying a given condition; the locus, as applied to comics, is a third way between narration and description). That's certainly what Hokusai did around Mt. Fuji: he searched for geographical points, hither and yon, from where the mountain could be seen. But that's also what every other comics artist does... all the time... even if their Mt. Fujis are called Mongo, or Metropolis... even if their points are just figments of their fertile imaginations...

Seth (d), Charles Schulz (a), The Complete Peanuts Vol. 1, Fantagraphics, 2004.

Part three of my review of Baetens' and Frey's The Graphic Novel, An Introduction is also about part three of the book titled "Themes." This section is about the relations between comics and literature (literary adaptations and comics inspired novels: chapter 8) and "Nostalgia and the Return of History" (chapter 9). The book is rounded up by a bibliographical guide to those who want to read more about... comics (chapter 10). Rest assured that among the books included an occasional tome will contain an occasional reference to graphic novels...

After a brief incursion on the interesting concept of psycho-geography, chapter 8 is about novels inspired by comics (so, not graphic novels or even comics) and graphic novels adapting novels. That's OK, but most of these are not exactly the most interesting graphic novels around. Other comics cited, a reference to (A Suivre) included (if we exclude Tardi and Muñoz & Sampayo), are equally mediocre. The true exception here is a well-deserved homage to Chip Kidd's work as an editor at Pantheon.

Before leaving chapter 8, some more pet peeves:

On page 195 we may read "fine art elevating pop culture." in a reference to Roy Lichtenstein. Again, Roy Lichtenstein didn't elevate anything. On the contrary, being a neo-dadaist he appropriated and modified comics panels as Marcel Duchamp appropriated a urinal and a comics character's name (in what may be considered the most influential aesthetic gesture of the last century). Being compared to a urinal is hardly elevating anything...

On page 200 there's this extraordinary claim (!):
[Chip] Kidd is at the center of this new world that pulls graphic novels and comics close together in publishing, linking Spiegelman to Miller, Ware to Batman, and many other points in between. This has raised the profile of DC-style superhero material for intelligent adult book buyers, and partly it has grounded graphic novels close to their roots in comic strips and dailies.
There're so many wrong ideas above that I don't even know where to begin! Let's just say that "superheroes" and "intelligent adult book buyers" in the same sentence is an oxymoron (but, then again, there's Watchmen, so, one never knows). In any case I doubt that intelligent adult book buyers touch superheroes with a ten-foot pole (and I mean sociologically).

On page 213 Floc'h is mentioned. I know that this book is U.S.A. centered, but if the authors wanted to cite someone related to graphic novels from the French-Belgian milieu why cite someone as mediocre as Floc'h? Why not Thierry van Hasselt (Gloria Lopez) or Vincent Fortemps (Cimes) or Olivier Deprez (Le château - Kafka!, he's not midcult enough?; silly me, sorry!...) or Fabrice Neaud (Journal) or even Edmond Baudoin (Le portrait)? Is this the world upside down? It definitely is, this time, no doubt about it!... (But wait! Wasn't it Jan Baetens who wrote for Frigobox, where the former three artists published their work?, how time changes people...)

We all know that graphic novels about autobiography and reportage are few and far between. That's why there are no chapters about the aforementioned topics. There's one about nostalgia though... Unfortunately it's a chapter more about comic strip reprints than graphic novels (with the blind spot of the influence of Peanuts by Charles Schulz on alternative comics artists, as seen in the image above, but that's just a minor detail). On the other hand Baetens and Frey manage to make some interesting points in this final chapter... My problem with it is that, to me, it stands as a symbol of the authors' unease with their topic...

I'll finish on page 225 though. To Baetens and Frey Jack Kirby couldn't draw fascist comics because he fought in WWII. That's a non causa pro causa logical fallacy if I ever saw one. That's the same thing as saying that Leonardo da Vinci couldn't paint beautiful women because he was gay. Or that Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos isn't a militaristic, violent, childish, manicheistic, fascistic piece of crap because some highly intelligent neo-nazis complained about it. 

Olivier Poppe, Frigobox # 1, Fréon, November 1994.

This book is a sad sign of the barbarian neoliberal times in which we are unfortunately living in. If you think that the political reference is uncalled for, think harder. With education systems running at double speed: with good schools for the wealthy; and crappy underbudgeted schools for the 99 %... With a capitalistic world view in which only what sells is worth doing resulting in a culture running at double speed also: with sophisticated art for the 1 % paid at its weight in gold; and the lousy lowest common denominator for everybody else... It's no surprise that a future which once looked like this (you may notice that Jan Baetens was supposed to be part of it), is now ashamed of itself (it's elitism) trying desperately to go back to square one.

This art form deserves to die.

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