For an intellectual feast, please read Alan Jacobs’s review of a new graphic novel by Mary and Bryan Talbot. Instead of reprinting the article as in my last section of “Good Reading” (which really should be retitled, “Good Reading from Alan Jacobs”) I’ve decided to simply link to the page and offer some of my own impressions. I also hope that any of you who have an interest would add yours in the comments below.
Jacobs performs a double task of reviewing the historical veracity of the Talbots’ work–which, according to Jacobs leaves more than a little to be desired–and asks the more important question, “what is a graphic novel?” First of all, he says, to call the graphic narrative a “novel” is a misnomer, but on the other hand, nobody has too good a handle on the contours of the graphic narrative to properly define it. He quotes Randall Jarrell’s definition of the novel as “a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it” and deems it good enough to apply to the Talbots’ book for the purposes of his review. What’s wrong with the Talbots’ treatment of James Joyce’s complicated relationship with his troubled daughter lies in a misapplied emphasis on little Lucia’s femininity and a subtle downplaying of her unstable mental state which eventually got her institutionalized. Joyce spurns Lucia’s desire to become a dancer and ultimately has her institutionalized, ostensibly due to her failure to live up to his ideal of a quiet, subservient woman. In fact, as Jacobs points out, Joyce had a wild confidence in his daughter’s potential and if he was disdainful of her desire to dance, it probably only saw it as beneath her powers.
Jacobs excludes no nuance from the graphic narrative as he gently buries Dotter as historically implausible and artfully misleading. He is attentive to the graphic subtleties of the work, how Lucia’s mental state is presented as docile and plaintive when all evidence suggests it was rather violent, and the beautiful rendering in sepia tones. He does not whitewash the relationship between father and daughter but refuses to be drawn into a tale of Joyce’s callousness and Lucia’s innocence. He concludes with Lucia’s utterly deranged reaction to her father’s death “That imbecile. What is he doing under the earth? When will he decide to leave? He’s watching you all the time.”
The content of the review should be a salutary reminder to a comics community seeking legitimacy for its work–rather than the place it currently holds as juvenile fiction that adult males happen to enjoy reading, and a sometimes interesting teaching aid for humanities professors–in the literary community, that the medium of “graphic novel” is not really so revolutionary as to escape real criticism. Much of the discussion and review surrounding comics that I’ve seen has been rather like the current debate surrounding video games: when the content of a game is deemed inappropriate or possible offensive–as in the case of the “No Russian” sequence of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2–the gaming community simply calls the accuser an out-of-touch doctrinaire unready and unwilling to consider new types of media as art. All too often, this is a ploy to escape chastisement from concerned communities and policymakers for graphic representations of violence or sexuality by appealing to an as yet undiscovered and suppressed form of artistry.
The comics community has a deep history with censorship and running afoul of public concerns for morality. Starting in the nineteen-thirties a small movement of psychiatrists, policymakers and concerned community leaders arose to limit and even ban comic books nationwide. One editorialist in Chicago put it bluntly:
“Badly drawn, badly written, and badly printed – a strain on the young eyes and young nervous systems – the effects of these pulp-paper nightmares is that of a violent stimulant. Their crude blacks and reds spoils a child’s natural sense of colour; their hypodermic injection of sex and murder make the child impatient with better, though quieter, stories. Unless we want a coming generation even more ferocious than the present one, parents and teachers throughout America must band together to break the `comic’ magazine.” (Editorial by Sterling North, Chicago Daily News, 8 May 1940, quoted by Coville, A.N.)
Fredric Wertham lent psychological credence to the view that comics were poisoning youth. In Seduction of the Innocent he laid out a case that comics were, by nature, harmful to the young mind. In 1954, comics publishers responded by creating the Comics Code Authority, which regulated the objectionable content of their books internally rather than waiting for Federal censors to do the job. This drove artists underground.
If you didn’t want to be writing stories about Batman going on a SCUBA trip and contracting the bends or Lois Lane worried sick over whether Superman still loved her, or Wonder Woman in the less-than-objectionable scenarios of fighting evil gorillas, icebergs and volcanoes then you’d publish your own work underground. The 1988 documentary Comic Book Confidential interviews the prolific artists who flourished in this period of censorship: Art Spiegelman, Charles Burns, R. Crumb, and Harvey Pekar. All of these men produced work that was self-consciously counter-cultural and deliberately profane, flipping the bird at the world that rejected them.
Today, however, the pendulum has swung rather back the other direction. The leaders of the major comics imprints, DC and Marvel, have incorporated many of the more profane elements, if little of the artistry, of these underground comics artists into their mainstream superhero fantasies. DC regularly offs civilians and superheroes alike, and Marvel is just behind. I know this because I work at a local comic store and find it incredibly difficult to recommend comic books to customers under 17. We have even put up a small “kids” section in the middle of the store. It is a wonder that the majority of the rest of the store is so decidedly not kid-friendly.
Outside of the mainstream, the celebration of radicalism and the picaresque has achieved stratospheric levels. Independent comics cannot seem to go one year without debuting some sort of intentionally blasphemous treatment of the life of Jesus Christ or excoriating the imagery of traditional American Protestant Christianity. The latest project from legendary scribe Alan Moore is a compendium of popular writers and artists supporting the “Occupy” movement, an adoring and earnest tribute to New Left principles. I tried to imagine what a comic book about female pro-life activists might look like, and realized I hadn’t the resources to imagine anything like this any more than one could imagine a pornographic film promoting the virtues of modesty. The independent comics market, though smaller and less profitable, is the engine of ideas and tone co-opted by the mainstream, and it has been shaped by its history of alliance with New Left counterculture. This is why the “darker” heroes like Batman and Wolverine are currently the most popular. Anti-heroism is the order of the day.
This also explains why nobody knows how to treat Superman. The most Christ-like and messianic of comic characters, Superman has been a hollow shell in an age enamored by “flawed” characters. Any image of the Good–including Truth, Justice and the American Way–falls under suspicion for its utopianism, narrow thinking, and exclusivity. All heroes must fall from grace, because to claim authority, even righteous authority, is to corrupt oneself. We shall see if the newest movie, Man of Steel manages to escape the stigma comics have applied to moral purity.
Which brings me back around to Jacobs’s review of the Talbots’ beautifully wrong Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes. What Jacobs has unwittingly done is subject a work to a kind of searching criticism that the tender comics medium is as yet unwilling to receive. I warn Jacobs to expect some backlash, providing any comics fans (other than myself) read Books & Culture. The unfortunate thing about a history of censorship is not that it sets limits to artistic freedom. It is that censorship creates another kind of sheltered bubble where there are no limits; where everything is permissible except canon, code, and authority. Historical evidence and true philosophy are also excluded from this new orthodoxy. Mary Talbot’s experience in “Critical Discourse Analysis” makes her a perfect fit for the ever recalcitrant comics community. To depict Joyce’s complicated relationship with his daughter even-handedly would be to accept language as containing more or less truth value rather than more or less power. Language in comics is a continuum between the oppressive and the libertine. A loving father is a nigh impossible image to render on the comics page, and indeed I do not know where or when it has been done convincingly. Youthfulness, anti-authority, generational warfare, these are the themes that comics cherish because they have been been baked into the life histories of the fathers of the modern comics industry.
As a young man with a comics habit I rather wish that Jacobs had continued in his review to ask what the “graphic novel” is. From what I have seen, it is a medium of sequential art that has something juvenile about it. There is nothing particularly wrong with this. Rebellion is a nearly universal emotion at a certain time of life. The trouble is that the supposed maturation of the comics medium has not graduated from this stage of pre-adolescence. Instead, it largely amounts to a promotion of juvenile themes. There are exceptions to be sure, but they are few and not influential. To truly grow up, comics would need to change its core commitments to anti-authority, violence, and the aesthetics of the profane. Until such a sea change occurs (and it is not on the horizon) comics will remain unsubtle, unsophisticated, and unwilling to render father and daughter as anything other than Lucia and her lamentable encounter with patriarchy.