Friday, March 8, 2013

Let’s Talk Comix (or Graphic Novels)

Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware Lead The Realist Charge

Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware
     Long narrative comics, otherwise known as graphic novels, have come a long way in the past couple of decades.  They’re usually in their own section of bookstores (and online), they’ve won mainstream literary awards, and many cities now have
comic conventions based on the biggest – San Diego’s Comic-Con, around since 1970.  Yet, when a colleague asked me a couple of years ago for a book recommendation, and I named what I consider to be a great work that happens to be a graphic novel, he did a double-take as if I was joking.   

     It’s a huge field with a number of genres.  Most people probably think of superhero comics as the epicenter and, though that may be the subject of future articles, I am going to focus on the realistic, character driven narrative.  Some of these can be memoirs, Alison Bechdel’s literary/philosophic approaches to her relationship with her parents (Fun Home and Are You My Mother?) immediately come to mind, and some have such a strong authorial voice that even though they’re fiction, they feel like they’ve been lived.  

Daniel Clowes at Work

     Two current masters of this almost ‘ash can’ brand of graphic fiction are Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware. Clowes has produced a number of works, which audiences may be more familiar with through film rather than the original books.
Ghost World tells of two adolescent female friends and how their seemingly aimless existence after high school graduation is thrown into sharp relief through some understated yet impulsive choices.  The deadpan tone of the book was repeated by Clowes in his Oscar nominated screenplay adaptation.  It really gets the idea of ‘alternative culture’ and its attendant ironies mixed with teenage cruelties circa the mid-1990s.  

     Ice Haven is a beautiful look at suppressed hysteria in a small town as it relates to a child’s disappearance.  It feels like the lost chapters of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio or Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street.  That sort of captures Clowes’ appeal for me.  He’s a retro Modernist writer whose art is contemporary Cool.  

     Wilson was published in 2010 and it’s been optioned for a movie version.  Clowes wrote the screenplay for Art School Confidential, a movie that spoke volumes about the contemporary art world, though critics just didn’t get it.  Wilson is an archetypal Clowes hero:  prickly, intelligent, insecure, buffeted by the world, and a survivor.  The most startling element to the book is that Clowes constantly changes drawing styles so that the many aspects of Wilson’s character and story are presented almost kaleidoscopically or as an example of Cubism.  It will be fascinating to see a movie capture this versatility.

Chris Ware at a Book SIgning
     I saw Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth in Chicago’s Virgin Store back in 2000.  I wanted to get it, but was intimidated by the layout.  A few years later in another era after Virgin closed, I saw it again and thought I’d take a chance.  It is a little confusing at times to know the order to read the images, but Ware is not too concerned about that.  The multiple storylines of Jimmy’s childhood, his fantasies, his adult life, and his grandfather’s life can be easily grasped once the reader realizes that the moods and the emotions are what propel the plot.  Ware realizes Thoreau’s notion that the ‘mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.’  It’s a masterpiece and the equal of any work of realistic fiction of the past twenty years.  It feels like a visual epic that would have done Raymond Carver or Samuel Beckett proud.  Ware’s latest is Building Stories, which tells of the residents of an apartment building is large enough to be in a box.  I’m thinking about it, though Ware’s ambition may be beyond mine.

And I'm the Smartest Cat in the World!

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