In her 2-5-08 essay “Acting Like You Have Nothing to Prove,” Jennifer de Guzman puts forth a good argument for the relevance of canons in literature (by which I assume she means print literature): “…works in the canon are generally part of a shared conversation for literary people; we see a literary ‘conversation’—one work giving rise to another, authors testing ideas, others developing them in different directions, others refuting them. I can feel like I’m part of something comprehensible and continuous when I’m engaged with literary works.”
She’s also correct in saying that comics, or at least comics striving for literary recognition, do not share this interconnectedness: “each work is solitary; it does not stand with its peers, working on similar themes with different nuances, adding to a conversation.” However, I disagree with her theory that “We don’t see more literary quality in comics being published today because too few critics treat comics a serious literature and art, critically reading and judging them without reference to non-literary works who (sic) happen to share the same format.”
Paraphrasing Shakespeare, I would say that the fault lies not with the critics, but with the creators.
I’ll take PERSEPOLIS as an example, since that’s the artcomic Ms. De Guzman invokes when she adjures readers to “stop acting as if PERSEPOLIS had anything at all to do with SPIDER-MAN.” So assume that a critic wants to compare PERSEPOLIS with a classic of print literature along roughly the same lines. Since PERSEPOLIS is a true story given literary treatment, maybe he’ll choose Truman Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD—very different in content, but alike in form. Yet if I were drawing such a comparison-- and I say this as a reader not wildly taken with IN COLD BLOOD—the Capote book is far more a part of the literary “conversation” than PERSEPOLIS is, because Capote understands how to take the particularized events of a real-life situation and to give them universal resonance. Capote, unlike Satrapi, manages to attain this resonance by infusing his real-life material with ideas and concepts that go deeper than just the particular circumstances of the narrative. PERSEPOLIS has already had a fair amount of literary acclaim despite the medium’s association with SPIDER-MAN, but if it goes unread by future generations, it may be because Satrapi had the potential to join in the conversation but chose to remain silent.
To win the respect of many (though not all) critics, an artist needs more than formal skills and a commitment to realism, both of which one can observe in abundance with the usual gang of artcomics suspects: Spiegelman, Ware, Clowes, the Hernandezes. The artist aspiring for intellectual respectability has to show that he actually understands the world of intellectual ideas and how to organically bring it in line with his personal preoccupations, whether based on real-life incidents or totally fabricated.
Think. Outside of the pages of Dave Sim’s CEREBUS—admittedly a flawed example of artcomics for all its merits—how often have you seen an artcomic that showed a passion for a concept or set of concepts? I’ve read any number of literary essays which trace the influence of THE GOLDEN BOUGH on Hemingway or Faulkner, of DAS KAPITAL on London or Steinbeck. What concepts do the purveyors of artcomics choose to pursue? The warmed-over Freudianisms of Dan Clowes? Yeah, I’m sure Harold Bloom is just waiting for those insights with bated breath.
I shouldn’t have to add this, but plainly I’m not calling for simple-minded “quoting” of philosophers or other literary authors, just so that artcomics-practitioners can gain a patina of respectability. If they’ve got something vital to say about Frazer or Marx or Pinker or whoever, then they should learn how to merge those insights with their works, be they fictional or autobiographical.
For this reader, at least, it takes more than proclaiming your distance from SPIDER-MAN to prove that you’ve got the literary equivalent of the Right Stuff.