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The Question of Greatness in Comics

Every so often, someone decides to throw together a list, or sometimes even an exhibition of “great cartoonists/comics artists”, and it’s inevitably almost exclusively men.  This is followed up by a week or so of blogging about “why aren’t there any great women comics artists? Or who is going unrecognized?”  Inevitably, as these things go, it becomes just a cluster of wank where no one’s mind gets changed about any thing and we all walk away wanting to scream into our pillows.

Rarely do these discussions delve into the definition or rubric of “greatness”.  If they do, the criteria is almost always self-justifying, the subtext of which is “it’s the same guys ~everyone~ have always said were great.”

I’ve observed and even been party to a few of these discussion, it was a topic that arose at the SPX Secret History of Women in Comics panel, and it is a question that has been much on my mind lately, since the new Catwoman and Starfire depictions (and ensuing wank) had the odd fortune of coming out the same day as Craig Thompson’s Habibi—which left me wracked with weeping, heaving sobs of both agony and ecstasy after a four-hour marathon reading session, followed up by me hand-writing Thompson begging him to submit the book to the Pulitzer committee, because Spiegelman has had those exclusive bragging rights for far too long.  

Basically, I almost couldn’t bother to pay attention to the Catwoman and Starfire controversies because it all seemed so empty after reading Habibi.  Don’t get me wrong, sexist depiction of ladies are always a problem, and nor have I transformed into an indie snob who is ~so above~ “long underwear” (and transparent bikini) comics.  Just that in one remarkable moment of synchronicity, I couldn’t bring myself to care.  I have to some extent returned to the initial transcendent high that first got me reading comics, when Sandman blew my 16-year-old mind, soon followed by V for Vendetta, From Hell, and of course Watchmen. In short, I started thinking about what makes comics “great” again.

The aforementioned weaksauce criteria of “greatness” usually are about their influence and contemporary reception, as well as the volume of quality output.  They tend to argue against doing any sort of comics archaeology, looking for “lost treasures” based on the belief that any artist or work worth remembering would already be.

I can’t buy that.  Because I was an English major.  And if there are two facts every American literature student learns, they are these: The Great Gatsby was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lowest-selling work when it was published, going out of print soon after.  And Moby-Dick destroyed Herman Melville’s career.  It took 30-ish years for literature scholars to read Gatsby and realize that Fitzgerald was writing about the era it was written in, and was not of it—a much harder task to pull off, and one that takes special insight and talent.  And it took 7 decades, after World War I, for anyone to find the value of a story in which a sea captain destroys himself and his crew in pursuit of an obsessive desire for some mad idea of triumphing over an enigmatic force of nature.  Sometimes it takes a while for the rest of the world to catch up with greatness—indeed, it makes quite a lot of sense.

I also can’t be holding with the idea that a “great” artist must have produced a lot of it.  Otherwise, this means that while John Kennedy Toole wrote a work of exquisite genius in A Confederacy of Dunces, but was not himself a literary genius.  And that goes beyond paradox into pure nonsense.

Meanwhile, Rob Liefeld was an enormously influential and prolific artist in the ’90s.  The audience loved what he did and he did a lot of it.  But do any of us want to live in a universe where Rob Liefeld is considered a “master” of comics art?

So, what IS greatness in comics?  Why did Sandman and From Hell snag me into this form of storytelling to the point where the reading, the study, the history of this medium is now my primary hobby and I’m being asked to be on panels to tell other people about it?  Why did I have trouble breathing while reading Habibi with tears streaming down my cheeks by the end?  And have women ever done it?

I must take a slight diversion here now to recall the most bizarre statement I have ever read on the issue of why more women weren’t included in exhibitions of Great Comics Artists.  The argument went that men tended to draw the page as a unit, and so they looked better hanging on the walls, where as women are more focused on the story.

I’m going to let that sink in.

Yeah. Men are better comics artists than women because women try too hard at telling stories.  Men make prettier pages while women tell stories, and that why men are Great.  Because what the hell are those women doing, focusing on the stories they’re telling??

Doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, does it?  My feeling is that comics are a storytelling medium, and any measure of Greatness should be based on how well the Form fulfills the Function.  If your art looks nice but it isn’t servicing the story as well as it could, well, you may have produced a gorgeous picture, but it’s not a Great Comics Page.  I don’t care if you could frame a panel and hang it in the Louvre with no complaints, if it doesn’t serve the story it must, by the very definition of Comics, be taken down a few notches in terms of Greatness.

Trust me, I know this can be hard to do, once you really start to aggressively apply it to your favorite comics, you can get defensive.  I loved Batwoman: Elegy as much as anybody, and the J.H. Williams III art has some of the most gorgeous, well-laid out pages I have ever seen.  However, if I’m honest with myself, many of those pages sacrificed storytelling clarity for the sake of design.  They are still Design Great.  They are still Art Great.  But they fall slightly short of Comics Great.

That’s not so say it’s entirely out of the running— I do very much believe in a balance test approach to Greatness.  Because Great does not mean Perfect.  Moby-Dick is still a Great Novel despite the tedious passages about the actual practice of whaling (including the bizarre description of how to turn the skin of a whale’s penis into an apron).  Page design and panel layout, and internal panel design are still important.  So is the layout of the lettering, and the inking, and the colors (where applicable).  So is the writing.

This is where it gets tricky because comics are frequently a collaborative medium, and nothing annoys me more than the tendency for comics critics to pursue some sort of overzealous Auteur theory that only qualifies writer/artists as candidates for Greatness. Alfred Hitchcock rarely wrote a screenplay, and never on any of his Great films (though he often discussed the stories at length with his screenwriters)— the idea that he should be held to be any less of a filmmaker because of that fact is laughable, and it’s an attitude that does not belong in comics either.  The writing counts towards a comic’s Greatness, since we have established that the artist’s contribution to storytelling is important, it seems only fair that the writer should bear equal responsibility.

Assessing the Greatness of a writer in relation to the Greatness of an artist seems a little unfair because of the mismatch of talent that can occur.  Indeed, no one’s Greatness as a writer or an artist should hinge on the equal Greatness of their collaborator.  However, it should feed into the Balance Test of Comics Greatness (TM).  Does the artist make the best of the script they are given?  Does the writer play to the artist’s strengths? (And one should not have to see the script in order to judge this; it should be clear from the final result, good or bad).  Do the words overpower the art?  (Writers should not try to cram 500 words into a page of a nine-panel grid— small panels = few words) Does the art overpower the words?  Or do they all fit together as a unified whole—the balance of words and pictures fitting the course and tone of the story?  Do the words in the panel play well with the art in the panel?

An example of what I’m thinking about comes from a criticism of a Bendis comic I read once (the name of the comic and the critiquer escape me, but this probably has happened on more than one occasion :3)  Bendis had one character telling another about certain recent events, entirely new information to both the other character and the reader.  The page was just panel after panel of these two characters sitting across from the table as the first one talked.  The critquer pointed out that page would have been greatly improved had each panel depicted each of the events that the first character was describing.  And I would tend to agree with that.  Characters sitting across from each other for panels on end can sometimes make good storytelling, but a lot of the time, there’s more the artist could do.  Pages should be dynamic, but one should also be careful not to confuse action with dynamism.

Also for writers, the basic guidelines of literature apply— both your Strunk&Whitean style and your Aristotlean plots.  Artists— know your anatomy and three point perspective and light sources and all that.  And of course, as with everything, rules are made to be broken, but only if you understand them enough to break them properly.

Back to page layout and panel design, both internal and external.  Basically, this boils down to clarity.  The reader should be able to read what’s going on, from both the words and the pictures, because the artist and the writer and letterer should be designing their images and words to guide the reader.  If the book reads left to right, characters should speak from left to right, and the letterer should be sure to lay the balloons in that order.  A character in a left-hand panel should not be looking at and reacting to something off the left of the page, because the reader will want follow their line of sight and it will be more jarring to move their eyes right.  Wonky or ~creative~ panel designs/layouts should be used very sparingly, and only if they truly aid the story and guide the reader. And so forth.

Comics also have a very astonishing and unique capacity for symbolism and visual irony that a criminally small percentage of creators take advantage of.  Those that do should be well recognized for it.

Is everyone on board with this?  The basic rule of thumb is that a comic and/or its creator is Great depending on how well it/they tell the story based on the inherent language of comics.  Creators should have their Greatness judged on how well they perform their given creative role, which includes how well their work fits with their collaborators.  This is pretty basic stuff and virtually none of it original to me.  Basically any Great, or even merely good, creator who could ever articulate “how to make good comics” has said basically the same things in different ways.

My main point of writing this all down was because I want to encourage discourse on the idea of Greatness in comics.  And that includes a rigorous reassessment of all the old gods, as well as hunting for lost treasure.  A Great comic or creator can be found before the Golden Age and somewhere online.  They may have been read by millions of kids, or by three people.  They may have been published by huge publishers or run off at Kinko’s.

Do not confuse the result of Greatness—influence on later creators—with a criterion of Greatness.  Creators influence because they are Great.  They are not Great because they influence.  Vincent Van Gogh had few admirers in life, but Starry Night was just as Great while the paint was still wet as it is now that it hangs in MoMA over a century later.  Emily Dickinson was still a Great poet as her work piled up in drawers, long before anyone else read them; the same goes for Jane Austen and her novels.  This bad habit of comics historians and critics picking the Greats out of the same pool of the big names from the past 80 years must be broken immediately.  No other medium’s critics and historians limit themselves so arbitrarily.

Now, who is truly Great in comics?  And are there any women?  At this very moment, I do not have an answer.  I have candidates, both men and women, but I am just setting myself along this path as much as I’m exhorting the rest of you to come along.  So we’ll see.  But the next time the question of the Greats of Comics come up, we will at last have some real common ground to start from.

  1. angfdz reblogged this from ladiesmakingcomics
  2. fullofwhoa reblogged this from ladiesmakingcomics and added:
    Go and read this, if you haven’t already. LadiesMakingComics has some fascinating thoughts and questions about how we...
  3. macreal reblogged this from crikeydave
  4. crikeydave reblogged this from utopiangem
  5. xan-drei reblogged this from mineraloid and added:
    An amazing read in light of the Starfire and Catwoman craziness. A look at what makes comics great.
  6. tygermama reblogged this from ladiesmakingcomics
  7. mi-na-to-rise-up reblogged this from ladiesmakingcomics
  8. mineraloid reblogged this from ladiesmakingcomics
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  10. erkhart reblogged this from ladiesmakingcomics and added:
    So many excellent points that unfortunately HAD to be made. Brilliant.
  11. gokaigato reblogged this from thehappysorceress and added:
    Great read. My little sister should really read this!
  12. kstipetic said: A few ideas of greatness to answer your call: * Adds to universal human understanding * Full use of form: could not have been prose, a painting, or a film. * Great not just in context, but out of context - that is, in the context of human nature.
  13. milokeen reblogged this from ladiesmakingcomics
  14. thehappysorceress reblogged this from ladiesmakingcomics and added:
    This is good. Important & interesting points are raised & it is worth the read.
  15. ladiesmakingcomics posted this
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