Saturday, April 30, 2016

A Critique of Charles Hatfield's Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature

This is a slightly revised version of an essay that was originally published at The Hooded Utilitarian on November 2, 2010.

Charles Hatfield is a fine critic, and Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature is an excellent critical study. It is perhaps the finest book-length work of comics criticism to date. The book is valuable on many fronts. Historically, it provides a superb account of the rise of alternative comics and the graphic novel over the last forty or so years. As criticism, one is treated to thoughtful, perceptive discussions of the variety and sophistication of cartooning techniques, the assorted aesthetic issues raised by memoir comics (still the dominant genre of literary cartooning), as well as an in-depth discussion of a storied creator (Gilbert Hernandez), which is probably the best critical survey of a cartoonist’s œuvre that I’ve read. It seems perverse to want something more or different from Hatfield, but all of the book’s virtues notwithstanding, that’s the feeling I’m left with.

The heart of my dissatisfaction is that the book is written from a perspective that comes from very much inside the comic-book subculture. It’s a point of view that is heavily informed by the attitude that comic books have always been great, and that the creators the subculture has lionized are worthy of the wider culture’s attention. The barrier to this happening, in the subculture’s view, is the wider culture’s need to get over its own misguided prejudices. Over the last quarter-century, the wider culture has treated certain comic-book projects as worthy of its attention. The subculture sees this as evidence that the barrier is crumbling: the day will soon be upon us when the likes of Will Eisner, Alex Toth, and Steve Ditko will be celebrated as great American artists. The subculture will be recognized as having been right all along, with the wider culture acknowledging the foolish, close-minded error of its ways. In fairness to Hatfield, he never writes anything quite so philistine or entitled, but it is impossible to escape the feeling that he is far more in sympathy with this attitude than not.

The truth is that things tend to get the respect they deserve. Yes, works are prone to being overrated or underrated at the time of their release, but issues of quality tend to get sorted out in fairly short order. The instances of a Carl Van Doren rescuing Moby-Dick from obscurity sixty years after its first publication are so rare as to be non-existent. The wider culture hasn’t been unfairly biased against comics and cartoonists; comic-strip artists like Milton Caniff, Walt Kelly, Al Capp, Charles Schulz, and Jules Feiffer certainly didn’t lack for public esteem in their heyday. The contemporary comic-book creators who have enjoyed the wider culture’s acclaim--Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Alan Moore, Harvey Pekar, Neil Gaiman, Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, Marjane Satrapi, Alison Bechdel, and maybe three or four others--have done so because they have produced work the wider culture sees resonance and value in.

The challenge for comics critics, in my opinion, is to get away from this Team Comics ethos. We need to move on from looking for opportunities to extol the medium, its history, and artists who have little appeal beyond the comics subculture. We need to focus on the artists who have captured the wider culture’s attention, using our knowledge and erudition to explicate these creators in ways the wider culture finds relevant. Hatfield’s book will hopefully be seen relative to Team Comics criticism as Alan Moore’s Watchmen is seen relative to superhero comics: tremendously accomplished in its own right, but after reading it, one should realize there’s little value in treading this same ground ever again. There are several critical proclivities on display in Alternative Comics to which I’m ready to say enough’s enough.

The first is this emphasis on erudition with regard to comics and their history. One doesn’t need expertise on the development of lyric poetry from William of Aquitaine through Edmund Spenser to write insightfully about Shakespeare’s sonnets. It doesn’t hurt, and can be quite helpful, but it’s hardly a prerequisite for discussing the work. Hatfield doesn’t even make a very good case for erudition. In his introduction, he writes:

[D]oubtless our sense of literary history would be richer had past scholars […] not neglected the popular traditions which stoked the development of what would later become canonical literary works (Northanger Abbey, anyone?).

One, Jane Austen wrote Northanger Abbey to ridicule--i.e., express contempt for--the popular traditions that stoked its development. Two, as far as I know, critics have always noted that the book was a parody of Gothic novels like Walpole’s Castle of Otranto. Three, the books Austen was targeting have certainly not been lost to time. Four, it’s a real stretch to call Northanger Abbey a canonical literary work. Austen is certainly a canonical writer, but that status doesn’t owe anything to Northanger Abbey. It’s due to her romantic-comedy novels, such as Pride and Prejudice. If Northanger Abbey is canonical, it’s because it’s piggy-backing on the reputation of Austen’s other work, something that makes the popular traditions that stoked it seem even more insignificant. If a richer understanding of Northanger Abbey is all one gets out of a familiarity with 18th-century Gothic fiction, I don’t think the latter is worth the time needed to read it. Erudition in this instance seems pretty overrated.

Getting back to comics, do we really gain much by, say, recognizing the influence of Bernard Krigstein’s graphic stylings on Daniel Clowes’ art? Does anybody really care? Comics erudition seems more about establishing one’s nerd credentials than laying the foundation for perceptive discussion of major work. A number of people outside the comics subculture find Jimmy Corrigan and Fun Home to be powerful, affecting books. Is a display of comics erudition really going to help them gain a more insightful understanding of what they’ve read? Or is it going to strike them as tedious pedantry about a subject they care little about? Our job as critics is to help interested readers better engage with the work we write about. It shouldn’t be to preen for our cohort.

Another thing I believe we’ve had more than enough of is the lionization of technique for technique’s sake. Hatfield devotes the book’s second chapter to a lengthy discussion of the complexity of cartoonists’ formal treatment of their subjects. The chapter is heavily illustrated with work by 18 different creators or creative teams. It’s certainly a striking collection of cartooning techniques. But really, who is this supposed to impress? Hatfield’s ostensible purpose is to rebuke those who see comics as inherently subliterate, but is anyone who’s at all sympathetic to that view actually going to read his arguments? Nobody is going to pick up a book of comics criticism who isn’t already interested in comics. And if one is interested in comics, it pretty much goes without saying that one doesn’t view the form as an insult to one’s intelligence. Discussions like this are more about congratulating the reader for his or her sophistication than defending comics’ aesthetic honor. Analyses of technique certainly have their place, but that place is in discussions of what makes a worthwhile work an effective piece. It shouldn’t be in this kind of implicitly self-congratulatory display.

Lastly, we need to better prioritize the creators and works deserving of in-depth discussion. A distinction needs to be made between the material whose appeal is largely restricted to the comics subculture and the material of interest outside it, with the latter being the efforts we privilege. Hatfield reserved one chapter for an exclusive discussion of a single creator. He picked Gilbert Hernandez, a creator with considerable status inside the comics subculture and very little reputation outside it. And that’s not likely to change, either. The works that have generated interest in the wider culture have one thing in common: an artful and pervasive use of understatement. (The one exception is Crumb’s work, but that has always appealed more to gallery culture than a literary readership.) Hernandez’s work, for all its technical fluency, is anything but understated. His dramaturgy is consistently hyperbolic. As for his stories, well, the biggest influence on their structure has been 1950s movie melodramas like Peyton Place. And like them, he advances his narratives by jacking up the sensationalism. The combination of over-the-top dramatics with soap-opera construction can’t help but strike most literary readers as bombastic and vulgar. (His penchant for pornographic imagery only adds to the distastefulness.) Hernandez has enjoyed some benefit from the academic fashion for privileging works by U. S. minorities, but the dramatic spittle that flies from his pages will always end up undermining him. Giving a creator like Hernandez the exclusive spotlight in a book of this sort flatters the subculture at the expense of the larger culture, and it looks fundamentally unserious.

Hatfield may respond that my concerns reflect what he disparagingly refers to as “status anxiety.” They don’t. Comics are just one type of work I spend my time with, along with fiction, non-fiction, poetry, art, and film. I like to read criticism in conjunction with material; the added perspective is always welcome. When it comes to works with which I’m not familiar, criticism can go a long way in steering me towards or away from it. The critic doesn’t even have to like the work to get me to take a look; he or she can spark my interest if they just make it sound bad in an interesting way. I find most comics criticism dull for the reasons I outline above. It has little in common with either my interests or the concerns that guide discussion of most contemporary art and literature. What I’m calling for is comics criticism that engages me and has some relevance to people whose principal interest is with the crossover work. (I belatedly note that Hatfield accomplishes this with his chapters on memoir comics, by far the most valuable section of the book.) As much as I appreciate the intelligence and insight Hatfield brings to subculture concerns, I can’t help but think it’s time comics critics focus on other things.

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