Saturday, August 20, 2005

Great Expectations and the Graphic Novel

I don’t read science fiction novels. To be blunt, most are terrible.

Once in a while, I’ve been persuaded to check out a new novel or a “classic” of the genre based upon glowing reviews. Each and every time, I’ve been let down. Excellent qualities were evident in most of the books recommended, but none could be called excellent novels. Not one of them could stand up to the heavyweights of literature. In honesty, few of them could even sit in the same room as the middleweights.

Over-enthusiasm for mediocre work is a common failing among fans of genre fiction. It’s also a failing common among the fans of media that hover around the margins. Yeah, that includes comics.

From time to time, a new graphic novel emerges and comics critics embrace it as true literature, as a work that can stand alongside standard prose novels as an example of fine art.

Most of the time, these critics’ darlings are unexceptional, at best. Often they’re pretentious twaddle, hoping to masquerade themselves as literature by embracing “mature subject matter.” Despite what many wish were true, adding depression and sexuality does not elevate simplistic fare to high art. Still, the promise of a great graphic novel floats before comics fans, giving us hope that maybe this time the widely-praised critics’ darling is as good as its supporters claim.

Recently I read a trio of critically-praised graphic novels that strive for wider recognition and acceptance than afforded by the comic shop ghetto. None fall into the all-too-common genre of superheroes; instead, all three are about normal men and important moments in their lives. All three are, to varying extents, autobiographical. They are:

Blankets by Craig Thompson
Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid in the World by Chris Ware
The Buddy Bradley Stories by Peter Bagge

Are any of them actually great? Do any of them achieve the level of high art? Or are they revered due to the low standards and expectations of the comic book audience? Or are they beloved for other reasons?

My dove in the clefts of the rock,
in the hiding places on the mountainside,
show me your face,
let me hear your voice;

--Song of Solomon, 2:14

“Coming of age” stories depict moments in individual lives that resonate with our common humanity. We appreciate such stories for reminding us that others have gone through struggles so similar to our own, and help us gain perspective on our own lives.

Craig Thompson’s Blankets is an autobiographical story. The first part of the novel takes place during his early youth, showing his difficulties as an unpopular boy plagued by a persistent sense of shortcoming. He struggles with his family’s relative poverty and their powerful fundamentalist Christian faith, which, to no small degree, alienates him from his parents and himself.

Shortly the novel progresses to Thompson’s high school years. While at “Christian Winter Camp,” he meets a girl. Both he and the girl, Raina, stood outside the established social orders of the campers, portrayed as a group of self-satisfied louts. After returning to their homes, Craig and Raina exchange letters and trinkets, and eventually fall in love. The heart of the novel is a two-week visit by Craig to Raina’s house, where two of them felt the joys and complications of love.

Thompson employed a black line of varying character to illustrate the six hundred pages of Blankets in a simple style. This approach proves an excellent choice for the story he wished to tell; it gave him the flexibility to convey a range of emotion clearly, a quality essential to the novel. The cartoonish abstraction helps readers identify with the characters, without which the book would fail.

The writing has the virtue of verisimilitude. Thompson lined the novel with quirks of character and ambiguities that gave the novel a feeling of everyday life. Craig’s relationships to his family and Raina rang true. Raina didn’t know what she wanted or how to balance her desires with her duties. Craig tried to reconcile his faith with his desire for his beloved. Thompson captured the exact flavor of these uncertainties.

The novel is well done. However, I’m sorry to say, it didn’t resonate with me. Blankets is a young man’s story. By which I do not mean it is the story of a young man’s life, though yes, it is, but rather that the intended audience is young. The approach taken towards telling the story was not that of an older man, who would apply later experience to give greater context to the story. Thompson created it with the immediacy and uncomplicated emotional intensity of youth.

The flavor of young love is particular. The love I felt for a girl in high school bore little relation to the love I feel for my wife. Blankets is consumed by the power of a first passion and never escapes it, even after the pair break up. It gave the impression of a novel written by a teenager trying to write as an adult looking back on a painful high school breakup, with the author not quite grasping how an adult would actually do so. An analogue to Blankets is The Catcher in the Rye, a novel that feels deep and powerful and true when you’re seventeen, and reads like a souvenir of adolescence when you’re thirty-one.

After Craig and Raina drift apart, the story jumps ahead a few years and tells of his break from his parents’ faith. Here Thompson rushed the novel and lost the subtleties that gave the love story its power. His sensitivity in characterizing Raina and her family was abandoned. Instead, Thompson painted the fundamentalist preachers and laypeople of his church as simpleminded buffoons. Craig quickly cast aside after he moves to the Big City and exposes himself to the breadth of the world. Craig also comes to reject the simplistic understandings of the Bible and look deeper, casting the religion of his family in a poor light.

Loss of faith seems too large a topic to be so casually thrown aside, as Craig does in the novel. Yet the loss of his childhood religion factors far less into the story than the loss of a high school girlfriend. Blankets is shot through with religious faith, and yet the loss of this omnipresent faith was only a brief coda. Such a puny resolution to a major theme in the book, and presumably Craig Thompson’s life, was unsatisfying.

To a teenager, I’d recommend Blankets strongly. To an adult, I’d suggest it as a decent story infused with adolescent naïveté and as an example of an extended graphic novel, not a masterpiece of the medium.

A dirty house in a gutted world,
A tatter of shadows peaked to white,
Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun.

--Wallace Stevens, “A Postcard from the Volcano“

Like Blankets, Chris Ware’s widely-hailed novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid in the World draws from its author’s life, though not as directly. The framework of the novel is the first meeting of the title character, a thirty-six year old man, with his father. According to interviews, Ware himself met his father when he was thirty, and the sum total of their time together was a few awkward hours.

The plot of Jimmy Corrigan is spare. Jimmy, a low-level office worker in Chicago, is contacted by his long-lost father. Jimmy’s curiosity gets the better of his crippling shyness, and he decides to meet the man. Corrigan travels to suburban Michigan and meets his father, grandfather, and sister. His visit is filled with awkward silences and a painful lack of connection with all three people. This story is interspersed with Jimmy’s dreams and fantasies, as well as an extended series of flashbacks to the difficult and lonely childhood of Jimmy’s grandfather in the late nineteenth century.

Jimmy Corrigan has great powers of evocation, generating moods brilliantly. For example, the novel is drawn in flat, cheerless colors, reflecting the muted emotions of the characters. Jimmy’s alienation is reinforced by the many awkward silences in characters’ speech.

Ware suggests Jimmy's alienation by showing only a handful of faces in the book, despite the large number of characters. Most figures' heads rise above the tops of panels, making them looming, faceless figures, or their backs are turned to the reader. To further suggest their otherness, the headless characters’ dialogue is presented in captions rather than speech balloons.

He also employs multiple settings to great effect. Jimmy’s story moves from the high-rises of downtown Chicago to the nondescript chain-store laden suburbs of Michigan.

The story of Jimmy’s grandfather began in small farmhouses and schoolrooms, then shifted to the massive architecture of the Columbian World Exposition of 1893, the fabled White City of Chicago. The sheer spectacle of the World’s Fair added to the pleasures of the book.

Ware’s use of time is particularly impressive. For example, on a page where he depicts Jimmy looking at a photograph of three people, he adds three lines of small panels along the bottom of the page. These lines of panels mutely trace the ancestry of each person in the photograph, showing their age by the length of the series of panels, and their relative age by where the panel series begin on the page.

But Jimmy Corrigan doesn’t succeed as a novel. The work is a three hundred and eighty page mood piece, embracing despair and longing with a sort of pride. This lack of variation or plot prevents the novel from fulfilling the promise of its technical achievement. How many pages of inarticulate impotence can one read before exhaustion sets in? The book contains little in the way of highs or lows; rather, it shuffles forward with a sustained hum of resigned sadness.

Even when the story dips into Jimmy’s fantasy life, it doesn’t break free. Jimmy’s fantasies are vindictive, often violent and cruel, but they never change the mood. Jimmy isn’t Walter Mitty, leading an exciting life inside his own head. Corrigan lacks the imagination to escape himself. Even in his fantasies, he is a pathetic and narrow man.

The ineloquence of Jimmy further damns the book. Yes, the art communicates a tone, but it fails to provide anything beyond tone. The grandfather’s story, told with both first- and third-person narration and a larger cast, was more involving. Pictures reinforced with words deliver greater effect than pictures alone. The novel grew richer for the change. When Jimmy’s sister Amy appears near the end of the novel, the story gained a great deal simply because Amy could at least speak.

Ware’s technical achievements in the book are staggering. His skill as a graphic designer is phenomenal. He exploits the strengths of the medium, a rarer feat than you’d think. But he is not a great novelist.

The most apt parallel I can find for Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid in the World is John Coltrane on an bad night. The audience would start by grooving to his virtuosity and inventive flair. Then Coltrane would begin a solo and play variations on a single riff. Over and over. Sometimes for as long as twenty minutes or half an hour. People got up and left. Even Coltrane’s own bandmates grew bored with him on those nights.

The Guardian awarded Jimmy Corrigan its “First Book Award.” The Guardian’s literary editor and chair of the award committee, Claire Armitstead, said: "Jimmy Corrigan is a fantastic winner, because it so clearly shows what the Guardian award is about - it is about originality and energy and star quality, both in imagination and in execution. Chris Ware has produced a book as beautiful as any published this year, but also one which challenges us to think again about what literature is and where it is going."

Ms. Armitstead is completely right. The book is beautiful and challenges the notions of what literature is. (I haven’t the foggiest what she means by “star quality” or how it’s relevant.)

Jimmy Corrigan is the most technically astonishing graphic novel I’ve ever seen. It’s also an unsatisfying read and an underwhelming novel.

I scream, you scream, we all scream for heroin!
--Leonard and the Love Gods

Buddy Bradley is an asshole. A heavy-drinking, philandering, rude asshole. Even Buddy would agree with that charge.

The Buddy Bradley Stories ran through the comics Neat Stuff and Hate, and have been collected in seven volumes: The Bradleys, Hey Buddy, Buddy the Dreamer, Fun with Buddy and Lisa, Buddy Go Home, Buddy’s Got Three Moms, and Buddy Bites the Bullet.

Buddy’s story begins with his high school years, trapped with his family in New Jersey. Those stories, originally published in Neat Stuff and collected in The Bradleys, fall outside of this review. Here I’ll cover only the materials in the six volumes from Hate, which tells of Buddy’s life from slackerhood in Seattle to his return to New Jersey, where he starts his own business, and, amazingly, gets married.* Over the course of the six volumes, Buddy falls in and out of love with women, skims the edges of alcoholism, manages a rock band, reconnects with his family, builds a life for himself, and deals with widespread lunacy.

The emotional range of Buddy’s story is far greater than anything contained in Blankets or Jimmy Corrigan. There’s also a vigor and life in Bagge’s work that is absent in the works of Ware and Thompson. The Buddy Bradley Stories have a number of flaws, but “preciousness” and “delicacy” can not be listed among them. Bagge’s art and storytelling style are instead descended from the crass underground cartoons of Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton.

Perhaps it’s a reflection of me, but the quiet despair of Jimmy Corrigan’s “coming of age” and the earnest naïve love of Craig Thompson’s “coming of age” did not resonate with me to anywhere near the degree of Buddy Bradley’s anarchic and confused “coming of age.” Not knowing what’s coming next, veering from insane pointless rages to laughter at one’s own cluelessness, forever trying to extract my head from my ass, that’s how I “came of age.”

The Buddy Bradley Stories are entertaining, dirty, and hilarious. Bagge’s skill at characterization gives them a life and a broad supporting cast that feels all too real. There’s Leonard Brown, better known as “Stinky,” the friend we have that we wish we could shake and the frontman for the legendary rock band “Leonard and the Love Gods.” Bagge’s most inspired creation is Lisa Leavenworth, Buddy’s girlfriend for the bulk of the stories. Lisa both loves and hates Buddy, and alternates between lucidity and high-strung insanity.

Of the three graphic novels in this review, The Buddy Bradley Stories are the only ones I would recommend to adult friends. Not only is Bagge’s work the most entertaining of the graphic novels in this review, but it also tells the most complete and rich story.

Ah, but is it great? Is it the graphic novel that transcends the medium and achieves the level of high art?

Nope. But it’s still great stuff.

*I can’t include it because I haven’t bought The Bradleys yet. Ditto the “Hate Annuals,” which I covet. C’monnnn, eBay…

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Blogger Axel M. Gruner said...

Maybe I'm dumb, but what connection have all these long german words with comics? Are they used by academics to indicate their cleverness? Do normal beings use words like these in conversation?

8/21/2005 04:50:00 AM  
Blogger Brian Cronin said...

No prob, Axel, here's a help.

Bildungsromans is "A novel whose principal subject is the moral, psychological, and intellectual development of a usually youthful main character."

That applies because that is what the books are about.

Zeitgeist is "The spirit of the time; the taste and outlook characteristic of a period or generation"

That applies because Harvey thinks that is what these books are being referred to as, and he wants to see if they are any good.

Schadenfreude is "pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others."

This applies because that is what these books are.

As for "normal beings," I use zeitgeist every once in awhile, but not the other two, although bildungsromans is a common enough literary term.

8/21/2005 05:11:00 AM  
Blogger Harvey Jerkwater said...

The title made more sense in an earlier draft of the reviews. Unfortunately, I made the rookie mistake of failing to change said title before I posted the article.


I had a whole chunk of the article about the words, but the bit was a lot more insightful and interesting in my head than on the screen.

And yeah, I do use "schadenfreude" in conversation. It's a distinct feeling that has no exact label in English. (Leave it to the Germans to have a word for "enjoying the suffering of others.")

Sorry for the confusion.

8/21/2005 09:06:00 AM  
Blogger Harvey Jerkwater said...

Re-reading my post, the title now looks like fifty pounds of concentrated pretension. Which, okay, it is.

I just changed it to match the contents of the article.

For those who didn't see the original title, it was "Bildungsromans, Zeitgeists, Schadenfreude, and Other Long German Words, or 'Great Expectations and the Graphic Novel.'"

The shorter title works better.

8/21/2005 10:13:00 AM  
Blogger Johnny B said...

Instead, Thompson painted the fundamentalist preachers and laypeople of his church as simpleminded buffoons.

Actually, based on my experience with those sorts of people, I thought Thompson was showing a lot of restraint...

8/21/2005 12:37:00 PM  
Blogger Axel M. Gruner said...

Sorry, Mr. Cronin for being vague... No, I didn't want to know what these words mean. I'm from Germany, so no need for ye olde dictionary. (Need better grammar 4 my english, but I disgress).
No, I just wanted to know: Are stilted (foreign) necessary and/or trendy for interpretation or literary analysis? German writers tend to do this also, but they usually use the odd english phrase out.

8/22/2005 04:31:00 AM  
Blogger Chad said...

I read Blankets last week. ALl of it.

And then I laughed a lot.

Blankets is an Oprah book.

Rural setting? Check.
Sexual abuse? Check.
Difficulty in interpersonal skills? Check.
Controlled moments of fantasy? Check.
Social insecurity dealt with over the course of the book? Check.

Had it been prose instead of a graphic novel Oprah would have snapped Blankets up in a second.

8/22/2005 06:56:00 AM  
Blogger Ed Cunard said...

Are stilted (foreign) necessary and/or trendy for interpretation or literary analysis?

Not necessary, perhaps, but useful. Particularly, as Cronin wrote, we have no equivalent for "shadenfreude" in the English language. Also, English is very much a scavenger language, picking up pieces to fill whatever gaps are needed at the moment.

8/22/2005 09:01:00 AM  
Blogger Ed Cunard said...

It'd help if I spelled "schadenfreude" right.

8/22/2005 09:02:00 AM  
Blogger Harvey Jerkwater said...

"Zeitgeist" and "Bildungsroman" don't have exact English equivalents either.

English literary criticism does use all three terms, and other untranslated terms as well. Partially to achieve precision, partially to give off the air of intelligence.

I was gunning for a mock-scholarly piece and didn't pull it off.

Dang it, I knew I should have fixed the title earlier. Ah well.

8/22/2005 09:24:00 AM  
Blogger Axel M. Gruner said...

No harm done. It was still a good read. And I usually also like to give off the air of intelligence. The aura of a genius sometimes is just the bad smell of old citations. Some Latin anyone?

8/22/2005 07:37:00 PM  
Blogger Leigh Walton said...

if only all this blog's contributors could write posts like this...

8/23/2005 04:33:00 AM  
Blogger Axel M. Gruner said...

No prob. Gimme some money, throw me a smile or show some leg, and I'll do it...

8/23/2005 07:27:00 PM  
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