Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Something in their Form that Dooms them

Douglas Wolk’s book Reading Comics: How graphic novels work and what they mean was reviewed in brief in the Times Literary Supplement last week by Jon Barnes, a novelist. Here’s an extract.

“Despite the medium’s burgeoning seriousness and respectability, it has a quality which seems to lend itself to colourful heroics, something innate in the form that persuades it to return to caped melodrama.”

“A quality … something innate”. Not very rigorous analytically, is it? It is a singularly odd innate “something” that fails to persuade capes to manifest in comics in Britain, France, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Mexico, and Argentina. Indeed, it seems to be a “quality” only of comics from the United States of America. One might even think it was a product of some historical contingency, such as, to pick an example entirely at random, a self-censoring Comics Code that neutered all genres other than superheroics. But that is far too concrete. Let us fall back upon airy metaphysics instead.

Now, I won’t deny that comics is a medium that does lend itself to colourful heroics, but it has that in common with, oooh, every other narrative medium and quite a few non-narrative ones too. Better, perhaps, to conclude that colourful heroics have a quality that appeals to the human imagination, sometimes.

I wonder if, had he been given a book to review that drew largely on examples from British comics, Barnes would have concluded that there was something innate in the form that persuades it to return to monochrome slapstick?

I expect better than this from the TLS.

Lewis Trondheim demonstrates something innate in the form that makes it return to black and white autobiographical meditations using funny animal tropes, while discussing artists whose work can rarely be described as colourful heroics, “At Loose Ends” part 1, Mome issue 6, Winter 2006-07. Original French edition 2004, I think.


Walaka said...

I agree with your assessment of the critical thinking (or lack of it) evident in the article (or at least the excerpt, since I haven't seen the article), but I wonder if we aren't sidestepping a valuable evaluation of the relationship between "caped melodrama" and comics.

The question is not "Why are comics only about superheroes?" (because they're not) but rather "Why do superheroes only appear in comics?" (which, while not absolutely true, is more true than not).

Although one can point to occurences of superhero fiction in other media, as a genre, it has not played a significant role in prose (or poetry), theatre, or television. Radio might have a few more examples, and, recently, movies (although superhero movies seem to dispense with capes and masks as much as possible), but still, when someone hears "superhero" I'd wager their first thought of medium is "comic books."

So perhaps the reviewer saw a connection and merely missed the true direction. It is not "all A are B," but rather "most B are A."

Steve Flanagan said...

I'm probably being hugely unfair. It was only an "In Brief" review, one column long, so there was little space to include reasoned argument.

I think your reversed syllogism is an improvement, but I'd suggest that other media don't really have the equivalent of Krazy Kat or Ranma 1/2 either. Comics are particularly good at providing convincing depictions of the unreal, perhaps because the familiar real-world elements (buildings, human faces etc), are rendered in just as abstracted and stylised a form as the bizarre elements.