Last week, Eric Reynolds was in town for the opening of MOMEntum, a retrospective of comic artwork from the MOME anthology he edits. He also curated the show, which is on display in the MCAD Concourse Gallery now through April 19th. For the opening, Reynolds enjoyed the usual rigors of being a guest of the MCAD comics program, which include an incredibly busy day of critiquing student work, lecturing a hall full of students and the public, and drinking the night away at Grumpy’s. You can read more about his experiences HERE. For some very nice photos of the MOMEntum gallery opening, check out Tom Kaczynski‘s set on flickr HERE.
I sat in on the lecture with the intent of posting brief quotes and highlights from the talk. However, this was the first time I recorded a talk I planned to cover for the Cross Hatch rather than scribbling quotes as they came. As a result, I found myself typing up…pretty much all of it. This is why, only today do you get what you should have received a week ago.
Reynolds talked primarily about the recent history of comic books, with a focus on how today’s “graphic novel big shots” first cut their teeth by serializing their work, how today’s cartoonists might be at a disadvantage if they leap right into long-format stories, and concludes with a smart explanation of how MOME is filling a need for young cartoonists. Mixing art with commerce can be an ugly thing, but Reynolds did a good job talking live on the issue. As a result, I did very little editing, but it should be noted that I did some. Mostly adding words or punctuation to transform run-on ideas into readable sentences. Also, I chunked the information into bits that seemed to convey an especially similar block of ideas, so you on the internet will have an easier time reading it.
I recommend that you take your time with some of the information, particularly if the phenomenon of “the rise of the graphic novel” interests you, and particularly if you’re an upstart cartoonist looking to jump right onto the graphic novel gravy train.
It’s amazing how much the landscape has changed for cartoonists in terms of being accepted as a real artist. The fact that you can have a school of prestige like MCAD where you actually learn comics without having the faculty and the administration thumb their nose at it — that is really an amazing thing. You probably don’t even realize how much it’s changed. On the other hand, we are in a very interesting time right now where graphic novels are booming and the economy is faltering and commercial opportunities for cartoonists are basically drying up. So today, I basically want to talk to you about where I see things having come from, then ‘til now, and what that means for many of you who are going to graduate from college and try to establish careers on your own.
In 1993, if you wanted to be a serious “literary cartoonist” or “alternative cartoonist” …the recipe was really pretty simple. You’d probably begin by doing short stories and sending submissions to any number of anthologies that were on the market at the time. Then eventually after a few anthologies you might find a publisher that was willing to publish your own solo comic book – and by comic book I mean the old-fashioned 24-32-page stapled comic pamphlet. Having your own solo comic and being able to contribute to anthologies enabled cartoonists to experiment and find their voice and find their style, which can be a little more difficult to do in the marketplace. Anthologies provided an opportunity for you to grow as an artist. So you’d have a comic book, and it would serve as your sort of calling card to the general populace. Back then the field of illustration was still a healthy one for cartoonist. I don’t know how many of you [students] are doing that now, but back then the alternative weekly newspaper market and the zine world were still an incredibly healthy one for cartoonists. Independent music was thriving and there were a lot of opportunities for cartoonists in cities like Seattle and Minneapolis for cartoonists to contribute…music and comics had a real synergy and seemed to offer up opportunities in ways that don’t seem to exist as plentifully as they did then. You had cartoonists driving the graphic look of companies like Sub Pop and Rhino Records and perhaps more importantly, photography and photoshop had yet to make most art directors believe that cartoonists and illustrators were obsolete.
Virtually all the major cartoonists I grew up admiring in this era started with their own solo anthology comics to explore ideas and experiment with styles and voices and approaches to comics. You had cartoonists like Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Joe Sacco, Jim Woodring, the Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, Seth, Chester Brown, Julie Doucet, Adrian Tomine, Renee French, Charles Burns…basically today’s all-star graphic novelists really made their names by doing comic books, not graphic novels. The list goes on and on…that was just half a dozen people or so. Basically you’d walk into a comic book store in 1985, 1990, even 1995, and find any number of great options to spend a couple $2-3 on. These comics worked for fans that just wanted to explore what was out there, but they also worked for the artist. It provided a structure for an artist to just do whatever they wanted. They weren’t beholden by big fat book contracts that had to be approved by editors.
Take Dan Clowes for example. Clowes is widely considered one of the modern masters of the “literary graphic novel” – most notably for his book Ghost World which was then turned into a movie. But Clowes started with a pretty unambitious 1950’s satirical pastiche called Lloyd Llewellyn and it was this kind of hard-boiled fast-talkin’ lightweight comedy comic strip that he did for a few issues, and then he worked his way through that up to Eightball, and Eightball number 1 came out in 1989 and it just featured short stories and humor strips and serials and he started serializing his first major graphic novel which is Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron – which is an incredibly flawed work, but also an incredibly powerful work. When it came out it was unlike anything you had ever seen. It came out around the same time as Blue Velvet by David Lynch and it had a similar effect, I think, on people who saw Blue Velvet, they were both so unlike what had come before. It wasn’t until about the 12th issue of Eightball that he began serializing Ghost World, which is his most famous work and he serialized it in a series of episodic vignettes. It wasn’t intended to be a long narrative. My point with all this is it’s safe to say he wouldn’t be the “long-form graphic novelist” that he is today without the opportunity to make mistakes as an artist, to do strips that were excellent, but also to do strips that didn’t work…and it’s safe to say he wouldn’t have been afforded the ability to make mistakes in something like Eightball – given the current economic climate, because I don’t think he would have gotten the freelance work that would have enabled him to work on this on the side. So the landscape now is a lot different for a cartoonist, and I think it’s a lot more challenging. It’s also a lot more exciting, because you’re having more and more good work published all the time, but it tends to be more and more kind of long book format.
Anyway, let me back up. So recent mainstream acceptance of comics, including film adaptations, major book deals, museum and gallery exhibitions like here at MCAD, academic interest – it’s all resulted in that complication of the term “graphic novel.” Which has a kind of nice ring to the untrained ear, but it’s also kind of a semi-pretentious description that has taken over the publishing industry simply because it’s a little more respectable-sounding, but I think it’s as every bit a misnomer as “comic book” is.
You take something like Joe Sacco’s Palestine which is a work of non-fiction reportage, and it’s referred to as a graphic novel – it’s not a novel, it’s non-fiction. And then you’ve got something like Dan Clowes, whose work is very literary I guess you could say, though literary is even a limiting term…but what I mean by literary is that there’s subtext. There are things happening beneath the surface. Most of the literary construction that you can point to is actually deeply rooted in the comic book tradition. [Uses page from Ice Haven to illustrate.] So I’m not sure that graphic novel really applies any more to a work of fiction like Clowes’ Ice Haven than it does to Joe Sacco’s Palestine. Then you’ve got Chris Ware who is really just blowing open the language of comics. His constructions of the page and panel kind of mimic the syncopated rhythms of music more so than literature. So again, here is one of America’s most well regarded graphic novelists but really what he’s doing has less to do with the medium of novels than it does music, visual art or things like that. So yah, they’re all graphic, but the terminology suggests the hand of a marketing department more than an author.
I was recently talking to Joe Sacco and asked him if he preferred that his books be called comic books or graphic novels, and he said comic books by a long margin – it just seems more honest somehow. So anyway, I guess my point of this is, I feel like the graphic novel has moved us away from some of the very proud comic traditions that have enabled us to get to this point where graphic novels have taken such a foothold in the world of literature.
I just keep coming back to this: comic books are not something to be ashamed of.
We’ve got to this point where sway is given to more ambitious, formal approaches. Expanding the form – literally and figuratively – pushing the term comic and its associated format increasingly to the edge of anachronism to where comic book is virtually an obsolete object for art unless it’s a monthly assembly-line Marvel or DC kind of mainstream product, which is very different in nature, and more of a collaborative soap opera than an attempt at making art.
My point in all this is, all these great cartoonists I’ve mentioned so far I don’t think would have become who they are today, except that they benefited from the comic books they did before they entered into the long-form work.
So for better or worse, our comic books have slowly begun to make the traditional comic book obsolete in its own market. It’s an anachronistic format with a reliance on periodicity and origins in the newsstand market, which was really never viable for anything less than corporate mass-market. And why is that? The labor-intensive and time-consuming nature of creating quality comics, especially graphic novels, requires skill in several disciplines and an ability to make them all work in harmony, so the notion of being a regular monthly or bi-monthly comic is a relative near-impossibility for most of you. It’s not unusual now for an alternative comic like Optic Nerve or Peep Show to take several years to come out. The increasing lack of viable alternative comics means there just isn’t enough critical mass of excellent books to sustain at the commercial level in the marketplace, which is why graphic novels have taken on such a hold.
The irony though in this increasingly marginalized format – the comic book – is that for most creators, it really is the perfect financial route as well as the perfect creative route. It usually allows an artist to be paid faster on a very practical level. Most publishers, including Fantagraphics, don’t really pay for work until either the artist delivers it or the book is published. If you are doing a 200-300 page book, that means you will be waiting a long time to be paid. By instead serializing a 200-page book in 24-page chunks, it makes things a lot easier. You have a deadline to aim for, rather than hold to an abstract 3-year on the horizon deadline. Practically, it provides a cartoonist with an opportunity to explore their own voice and get work done. Most cartoonists really can’t maintain the kind of schedule that’s crucial to establishing any kind of a minimum marketplace though, so you’re forced to think in terms of books, and that’s why I’ve seen graphic novels gain such a foothold this decade as the format of choice. The book format has a better-scaled economy for publishers than comics, and allows for a wider distribution. Comic books are only distributed to comic book stores, and as any of you who go to comic book stores know, comic books are not something necessarily that an average Joe goes to. You have to be a comic book fan. Casual comic book fans don’t go to comic shops, they go to book stores and they look for the book collections.
As a result we’re in this weird place in history. We’re kind of in the dramatic paradigm shift in the way comics are packaged – and the biggest paradigm shift since comics started in the 30s, when publishers took a newspaper tabloid and folded it in half and called it a comic book. That format has pretty much stuck until today. Now we’re in this shift towards a proper book collection with a spine and an ISBN.
So publishers are increasingly moving towards the graphic novel whenever the cartoonist’s personal situation will accommodate it. There are still a number of good books that come out this way. Fun Home by Allison Bechdel was an original graphic novel. Dash Shaw’s Bottomless Bellybutton was another amazing original graphic novel that he did on his own. Doesn’t hurt that he’s an incredibly efficient cartoonist. Persepolis was another one. In many cases, cartoonists just can’t afford graphic novels, and publishers can’t afford to bankroll cartoonists for the length of time it takes them to create graphic novels…which leads me to MOME.
When I first started reading comics and cartooning it seemed like it wasn’t that hard to get published through anthologies, zines, etc. In 2004 when I first started to conceive of MOME in my head, and with Gary Groth at Fantagraphics, one of the reasons we started thinking about it is because there are virtually no regular comic anthologies on the market. Graphic novels were booming, but there wasn’t a place you could send a short script when you finished it, and anticipate having it published in a few months. You pretty much had to self-publish or web-publish. The best anthologies that were out there in 2004 were probably Kramer’s Ergot and also NON by Jordan Crane. They came out very infrequently though, maybe once every couple of years, while simultaneously pushing the boundary on what comics could be. But they weren’t the kind of thing you could send a strip in with the hopes of being published.
Seemed like at any given time there was one hot graphic novel, like Jimmy Corrigan or American Born Chinese, and they’re great, but at the same time, there are hundreds of great books being published all over the place at 1000 copies or fewer and not getting the attention these bigger breakout successes might have had. Most of the stuff Fantagraphics publishes sells as few as 2000 copies. So there are these people out there who have read Maus, for instance, and don’t know where to go next. So my idea with MOME was basically to present something that could be a receptacle for what else was out there. We wanted to have a nice survey of contemporary alternative comics. There was sort of a two-fold approach: on the one hand with readers in mind, and on the other hand with cartoonists in mind. I wanted to have a venue that would give cartoonists the venue and motivation to publish comics regularly without having a regular deadline. I also wanted to provide readers with an opportunity to see what was out there in the market beyond the 1-2 breakout graphic novels they might have read. With that in mind, I looked to things like McSweeny’s or Verante [?] or maybe something else entirely. What McSweeny’s meant to the world of prose, really, is what I wanted MOME to be for the world of comics. When McSweeny’s came out, it was a very influential thing for me. It was the first literary journal that I really clamored to read every issue, and I realized that it single-handedly broadened my awareness of the contemporary prose that was out there. I kept coming back to that with MOME and wanted to have something that opened the eyes of anyone with any kind of casual interest in comics.
Aside from what I wanted MOME to be for the readers, I also have this goal of MOME being a place where the cartoonists can nurture themselves in their voices – so part of the key with that was posting MOME regularly. We post it quarterly – which might not seem that often – but in the world of alternative comics it’s very frequent. So I wanted to make something fans could go every new stories few months, and I’m proud to say within the first five years of MOME, we will have published over 2000 pages of comics, which is kind of amazing, to me. 2000 pages of comics is kind of incredible, and I don’t know if there has been another alternative comics anthology on the market that has ever published that many pages of comics before.
So as a quarterly book series, we can get it in newsstands, we can get it shelved with other graphic novels, we can get it shelved with other literary anthologies – at least that’s the goal. And again, I’m talking about art and commerce, and maybe this commerce stuff is kind of dry, but the reason I bring it up is because I can’t emphasize enough how much I think the short-story form – especially in conjunction with a regular deadline – can really benefit a younger cartoonist who is trying to find their way in the world of comic art.
As any of you in this room who make comics know, they’re very labor-intensive. You need to be multi-disciplined. You need to be a good writer, you need to be a good illustrator, you need to take your illustration skills and apply them. You probably need to be a good graphic designer at the same time, and you even need to be a good actor and director, because you need to be able to communicate with your characters in their dialog and physicality. These are not easy things to do individually, let alone in harmony, and what that means too is that on the back-end that comics are so much harder to edit than prose. You can’t just go in and delete a word or a panel and sandwich everything else together. You’re creating panels and pages and chapters and longer works and you can’t just cut-and-paste so easily. Part of this is, the medium is so young, that a lot of it is just intuitive for many people, and it’s only in the last few years that you’ve had dedicated academic institutions trying to codify the language of comics into something that can be taught. It’s getting there, but it’s still an incredibly young and intuitive medium, that I think even after hundreds and hundreds of pages, you’re still trying to find your way, you’re still trying to come up with new ways of doing things and find the perfect process for creating a page or a story. You have to remain flexible and not be boxed into any particular genre or style, which is why I think it’s so important to experiment with short stories and to essentially not lock yourself into a long-form work too early in your career.
- Sarah Morean