The Dark Pages: An hour of radio dedicated to the graphic novel

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Charles Burns and Chris Ware in the studio [Brendan Greeley ]

The funny pages always have a handful of comics that are without comedy. Mary Worth, Gasoline Alley, Dick Tracy and Apartment 3-G are among the serious serials. These were the adult comics of the 50’s, then came the 60’s.… comics, like everything else, went underground.

Underground, cartoonists such as R. Crumb, Greg Irons, and Jay Lynch, were writing about sex, drugs, and violence. For this reason, the new comics became known as “comix” to set them apart from mainstream comics and to emphasize the “x” for x-rated.

In the early 90’s the underground scene got an upgrade when Art Spiegleman received a Pulitzer Prize for Maus, an illustrated narrative of Holocaust survival. Maus gave birth to the genre and there have been numerous graphic novels that have been documenting the dark side ever since. Whether it’s the Bosnian war or the aggressive banality of the everyday, the graphic novel has revealed itself to be an exquisitely effective medium for portraying physical, psychic and emotional devastation.

What we’ll be discussing this hour is why. Is it the immediacy? Is it the interplay of the visuals and text, which can range from sublime harmony to utter dissonance? Is the graphic novel a cerebral experience or does it bypass that cortex and go straight to the gut?

What are you favorite comix/comics? Do you think this is an effective medium for documenting all things dark?

Chris Ware

Graphic novelist, author of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth,

The Acme Novelty Library

Charles Burns

Graphic novelist, author of Black Hole,

Skin Deep

Henry Jenkins

Professor of Literature and Comparative Media Studies, MIT

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  • Potter

    Okay I’ll bite at this. The comics were a big part of my childhood. We did not have television and I spent many hours with my friends, cousins ( they had subscriptions), reading and trading comics. These were”the funnies”. I loved Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Nancy and Sluggo, LuLu and then Archie and Veronica, Dick Tracy, Superman. It’s hard to believe that kids today don’t have this in their lives.

    After a long dry period ( I think I read R. Crumb in the 60’s 70’s) I finally read, not that long ago, the much acclaimed Maus 1 and 2 by Art Spiegleman. It’s hard to say I loved it because of the subject but I really loved it- I could not put it down. My 92 year old mother read it too and could not put it down. I think she really enjoyed the form as I did. It’s an adventure to read, more engaging than the printed page. I guess it’s the “novel” part of it that is new. The funnies were not novels.

    I also have one of the Spiegleman “Lil Lit” series (loved “Prince Rooster” the Hasidic Tale). So I couldn’t wait for “In the Shadow of No Towers” to come out last year having seen a few frames in the newspaper. It’s about Spiegleman’s experiences on 9/11. This struck me as a continuation of Maus’ in a way – living through another trauma, this time not through Art’s father as in Maus, but in reality. The frame of the burning towers very powerful. Speigleman’s nervous system seemed already set up for 9/11.

    I have the Jimmy Corrigan book. I had to have it because each frame is like a little painting. I have to confess I am waiting for a relaxing moment to actually read it. But it almost works as an art book. I think this is an art form. When did it become an art form? I think this snuck up on us.

  • eflake

    “Almost” an art form? What’s keeping it from jumping over that particular velvet rope? Because it has words? because it tells a story? because it’s not on a wall? Of course it’s an art form. That the “are comincs and art form?” question has lingered so long and heated up so much in recent years baffles me somewhat. I suppose that their genesis as a form of entertainment – or worse, children’s entertainment -puts them low on the Art Totem Pole, but I think to draw too thick a line between art for art’s sake and art in the service of a narrative is unneccessary. Is a portrait any less “art” because it was commisioned? But the “what is art” debate is for another time – there might be book or two on it already – what is interesting to me is the blossoming of comics as a fully realized narrative, and its ascendence in our culture today. Why is this form connecting with so many people? Why this hunger now? Is it that it’s enjoying a certain amount of play in the media, and doors are opening that were previously closed to the form’s practitioners, or is there a real desire on the part of readers to see more of it? And of course, there’s a distinction between the daily or weekly strips and the more fully realized work of Ware, Speigleman, et. al.; lumping the two toghther is sort of like lumping a demo tape by a teenege garage band in with the White Album. I for one am thrilled that they’re finally getting their due.

  • eflake

    Also I think that we live in such a visual culture that it’s only natural that this kind of visual narrative would find some purchase now. I find it very encouraging that people are responding to the beauty and care that goes into making these stories, stories that are put in the body of a precious object. I think it gives people something to treasure, to slow down with and to enjoy; when everything is so immediate and disposable I think it creates a kind of appetite for that.

  • RoyPardi

    Hey Chris (Ware)!

    Great (and odd!) to hear your voice coming over the radio. Congrats on everything! Hello to Chicago from Somerville.

    yer pal and ex-Winchester St. neighbor,


  • Dave Sim made his “graphic novel” called CEREBUS as a monthly comic, collected into “phone-book editions” — 16 paperbound volumes that sit more than a foot high on the desk.

    It holds together as a continuing saga, getting bigger and wider and more complicated as things go on. It started actually as a parody of Conan The Barbarian called “Cerebus The Aardvark” and ends up, in my mind, as the comics equivalent of Joyce’s “Ulysses”.

    It took him 23 years, but during them his innovative mind repeatedly re-invented the ways comics can tell stories — yet he never lost an ability to laugh.

    “The Graphic Novel” didn’t start with MAUS, nor did it end when Carebus died, alone and unloved, in monthly-issue #300.

    And, luckily for me, a critical-magazine called AFTER CEREBUS has been filled with surprisingly intelligent articles for five issues already.



    ( a k a larry stark )

  • Potter

    I said, about Chris Ware’s book, that it almost works as an art book, meaning a book you buy just to look at the pictures, not to read as a novel. This does not have to rise to the level of art. I never thought of comics as an art form, or a high art form ( or fine art form). So I am beginnning to feel, with Spiegleman and Ware for instance that maybe it is. I have never seen this quality in comics . This comment was strictly about my personal awareness.

    Being a potter, I completely understand eflake’s defensiveness if she is draws comics. Clay is considered a craft. But it often rises to art. But this argument, this defensiveness is not necessary. The works speaks for itself. People come to their own realizations.

    I would not call the comics I grew up with, the kids’s comics, an art form. Maybe it is sonsidered so, but I would not call it that. It does not rise to that level in my opinion.

  • eflake

    Fair enough, and duly chastened, Potter :). I should stay off my high horse, I look like an ass on it.

  • Potter

    Thanks. This is an old argument with potters and works in clay being craft because it is clay ( in this country, not in the Far East) I have decided that this argument is a waste of time. it takes awhile for people to see what you see as a creator involved in your medium.

    I also was thinking that it’s really not an art form until someone ( at least one) makes it so. After that it is, For instance photography was not an art form just because it was invented. And it was a long time before it was fully recognized unquestionably as an art form.

    We went to the Museum of Fine Arts here in Boston recently when they had an exhibition of Ralph Lauren’s car collection which we thought was a way to attract visitors and that this was not an art form. But we passed one of the cars on display in the lobby. Gosh darn, this car was art!

    I throw my hands up.

  • In the show, Chris Ware mentioned his preference of the word “comic” over “Graphic Novel.” I’m heartened by this. So many observers seem dead set on making newer comics something “different” in order to legitimate them; however, this sort of segregation is based on very little. I am reminded of an anecdote shared by Neil Gaiman in an interview on the PRI program Studio 360. Gaiman was at some literary shindig, and had told some literary bigwig that he made comics. After some awkward conversation, teh man brightened and said “Oh, you’re Neil Gaiman! My dear fellow, you don’t write comics; you write graphic novels!” Recalling this, Gaiman said, “I felt like a whore who had just been told that she was a ‘lady of the evening.'”

    As an amateur comic artist (and there are more of us than you might think), I’m so glad to see the medium gaining some legitimacy; but I’m even gladder to hear its practitioners not denying their connection to the medium in all its forms.

  • benchcoat

    well, I’ve got some critiques–but first, kudos to an generally good show. and an apology for my first post here being mostly negative.

    now, on to the critiques:

    1. the show’s focus was way too narrow. I love the work of both Chris Ware and Charles Burns, but while financially troubled, comics are a diverse and vibrant medium. I would to hear a follow up show that includes Jessica Abel’s first person journalism, Jay Hosler’s books on Darwin and bees, Alan Moore’s spiritual musings in Promethea, the adventurous work of Grant Morrison such as We3, the Filth, and Vimanarama, and the work of many great Xeric Award winners such as Rhode Montijo’s Pablo’s Inferno or Action Philosopher’s by Ryan Dunleavy and Fred Van Lente.

    2. the show also had too much focus on writer/artist creators. comics are very often a collaborative medium–I would love to hear how the creative process differs for Moore and Morrison depending on the artists with which they collaborate.

    3. the show was dwelled too much on the darkness of Chris Ware and Charles Burns work, seeming to imply that a serious comic must be a dark comic. Morrison’s the Filth is a serious comic that contains dark disturbing (and wildly inventive) imagery yet also is largely about the transformative nature of love. Jessica Abel’s work can be both poignant and joyful.

    I guess my main criticism is that this may be the first time I’ve heard an episode of this show where the topic felt like it had been pigeon-holed prior to taping and wasn’t able to transcend the normal discussion of the topic.

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  • I enjoyed the show, but I have to agree with benchcoat on the narrow focus of the show. While the most intellectually stimulating comics (I too cringe at the phrase “Graphic Novel”) are often of the creator-owned variety, A couple of years ago my brother, and aspiring comic artist, re-introduced me to the superhero comics of Marvel and DC. I was surprised by their complex approach to what I remembered as simple punch-em-up superhero storylines.

    I think a whole show could be devoted to the changing role of the “superhero” comic. Since Frank Miller, now re-popularized as the creator of Sin City, re-approached Batman as an aging vigilante in the Eighties with “The Dark Night Returns” and Allen More explored the psychology behind the superhero archetypes in “The Watchmen” the superhero genre has undergone something of a shift toward the introspective. I think Professor Jenkins suggested as much briefly in the show. The industry itself seems to be struggling with fascinating issues surrounding their own status as artists, as well as the seeming contradiction of trying to write adult stories for a medium the world considers more appropriate for children.

    In addition to benchcoats list of admirable titles I would add “Powers” by Brian Michael Bendis, which tells a noir police story in a world of superheros,

    On a different note it is good to hear Chris’ voice again. I was a devoted listener of the Connection in High School and I have a deep association between the sound of his voice and the period of my own intellectual development. Know I listen to the show via the podcast from Beijing, and it is a vital touchstone for me with world on that side of the Pacific.

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  • Matt

    The presenter really had no idea what he was asking. It was really frustrating that two wonderful artists were not able to give more of themselves, simply because the presenter didn’t understand what they were about. He couldn’t even remember what Black Hole was called at one point! I’m sure he’s a really nice guy, but why get someone like that to interview them? Thankfully some of the phone-in questions were intelligent. I imagine the whole interview was very painful for Ware and Burns.