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December 12, 2007

From the Drawing Board of Paul Pope


For most of the history of American comics, storytellers have had to structure their tales in episodic chunks of narrative, their plotlines unfolding in serialized chapters from month to month. This was due to the nature of magazine publishing and the requirements of the marketplace, conditions which inadvertently influenced the medium in significant ways. As with pulp sci-fi or detective periodicals such as Astounding Stories or Detective Fiction, publishers and the reading audience alike tended to favor brief, cliffhanging narratives full of colorful, often lurid characters. Stories in the comics resembled soap operas or radio plays more than novels, a condition we still see in most mainstream superhero comics being published today. These sorts of episodic stories are not really supposed to end, like Pachelbel's Canon or The Beatles' Hey Jude, they're designed to go on forever and ever.

There is some debate about which book actually qualifies as the first true graphic novel. Will Eisner's A Contract With God is often sited, a book that's a collection of short stories about normal people living in a New York tenement building. These beautifully drawn stories are written with a subtle, literary flavor which still resonates today. This is probably the true mark of literary quality -- if a work can seem living and vital every time you re-read (or in the case of comics, every time you re-view). If that work can somehow continually enrich the person reading it again and again at different points along the walk of life, it becomes a priceless thing, like an old and continually surprising friend. For the decades preceding Eisner's attempts, "comics" as a storytelling medium relied on either the daily newspaper pages or the monthly comic book format for its stage. Whether in the hands of a great artist or a tired hack, the stapled newsprint pamphlet was the staple of comics storytelling. An artist like Milton Caniff could develop long and rather complex adult-oriented storylines in his strip Terry and the Pirates, and his work -- along with Windsor McCay's Little Nemo In Slumberland and a few others -- is still held as a high water mark in 20th century cartooning. In Europe and Asia, there were longer narratives, and some stories (such as Cendres and Pellos' Futuropolis or Osamu Tezuka's Adolph) resembled prose literature in their tone and content, however these were largely unknown outside of their home countries but to a handful of world travelers and professional artists for years and years. It has really only been for about a single generation -- maybe since the mid 1980s -- that the long format "graphic novel" has been a viable storytelling vehicle for people who want to tell stories in the comics medium, and only for that same amount of time American readers have had wider and wider access to the entire body of what I call "world comics"-- graphic stories from around the globe. Today's young reader has access to virtually the entire body of comics history, stretching from Japan to Europe to the cave-spelunking past of America's many venerable traditions.

Each facet of the comics medium is important and deserves its own special consideration, but it's the writing in comics I'm thinking about right now. I often wonder why we don't see more literary quality in the comics being published today, why we don't have a John Steinbeck or Robert Penn-Warren in our medium, authors who can unfold a filigreed theme across an extended storyline and touch on that ineffable shade we call "the human condition." Where are our Sam Hamiltons, our Willie Starks, our Jack Burdens, our Cal Trasks? It may simply be that good writing is rare. It is also entirely possible that most comics creators are simply unconcerned with developing literary themes in their work, favoring instead sweeping epics of good versus evil, populating their paper worlds with colorfully costumed heroes and villans invested with very little psychological complexity or self-awareness. It may be that most people who are attracted to the medium want very little more out of life than to draw pretty pictures, tell exciting, splashy stories, and get paid for it. There is certainly nothing wrong with those interests (I wholeheartedly share them myself), but every time I finish what Hemingway might have called "a damn good book," I can't help feeling there is always a need for more and better writing in the comics. When it comes to comics, the equivalent of a fine literary writer would have to be someone (or someones) with the implicit vision of a poet, who sees and feels life and knows how to code it into visual storytelling through comics' special melange of prose/dialogue and persuasive drawing. It seems to me a poorly drawn but well written story is far better than a well drawn, poorly written one. When we're lucky, as in the case of Gipi's Notes For A War Story, we have both together, at once. That should be our ideal, then. More stories with better art and better writing, always and forever more. Whether it's a serious meditation on the private life of a family or a madcap ruckus with kooky talking animals, all I care is that it's a comic story which is done well and it has lasting impact -- that's the literary quality I want to see in a comic.

For my upcoming projects Battling Boy and Total THB, I've been really thinking about the freedom made possible by the extended graphic novel format. It is significant to note that we've reached a point in the history of comics where an author can more-or-less work completely outside of the monthly serialized periodical format, with its inherent page strictures and narrative conformities. Nobody said it was easy or could come without paying your dues, but you can do it all the same. So long as you have something valuable to say and the talent to put it on paper, you can do it. It is no longer necessary to constantly invent some new cliffhanger every 24 to 32 pages to keep the readers coming back month after month, it is no longer necessary to come up with endlessly hyperbolic cover designs to entice new readers, no longer necessary to truncate extended scenes of character development for lack of space on the page. These are all common characteristics of the monthly comic book publishing format which many of us struggle with all the time. Now, thanks to the vigorous interest in manga on the part of new readers and the on-going assault comics is making on the whole of contemporary pop culture, cartoonists are able to approach new comics in the same way authors like Tom Wolfe or Kurt Vonnegut would've approached their latest novel. Readers crave good stories, and probably beyond that, deeper meaning. There seems to be a real psychological need for art -- for all the arts. Art offers us a reflection of interior ourselves, through the eyes and hands and words of another. Through meaningful art, we consider ourselves and our very condition of being human, and in the process, gain more insight into our true natures as living, sensing creatures living on this planet of ours which we call Earth. Comics has stepped out of the wide shadows of film and illustration, and is now invited to stand on its own, an infant medium full of potential and power. We are being invited to share our stories on a world stage, however long or short our stories might be. We've got a lot of work to do, let's show them what we've got.



its amazing to me how americans cant fathom that the may not be the first or the best at anything...

of course the first graphic novel would have to be by an american...


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@Brady Dale : I think for me the thing has been to see that convention based ‘hit’ or reward approach to the narrative itself is often the problem. Patience is the thing in the end, that’s where I put my money, all leads from there.

The story is there to be told, not make you feel good about telling it.

Or the reader about reading it. Treats are cheep trix. Truly engage them, and you can beat them silly and still they will thank you.

A literary story can contain a great range of genre conventions and different tempos, but it’s more of a long waltz than the robot, a running conversation between old friends, at least half only ever implied but never stated. You can add some hooks to it but without that hart it will be a pretender.

Whoever the creator is if they understand that I think they will get it. But yes it takes so long and that is a substantial obstacle, you have to put time aside to do it some I think.

Anything worthwhile…


good thing i lover her so much.

Great post! Sounds exciting Paul! I've been thinking a lot about the same thing for the last few years, trying things, watching others playing with it too, look forward to see what's been on your mind!

P.S. How pumped am I that when Paul Pope brainstorms for great characters he picks two that I would have called out first as well? Stark and Burden, from my all time favorite book, ALL THE KING'S MEN. Pretty pumped.

Such a great question.
As a person who primarily writes but sometimes draws comics... I am always struck by how darn long it takes. Isn't that somehow part of it?
I see this in two ways.
1) You can do the punchy, big theme, good versus evil stories in shorter, more exciting chunks. The long, subtle story would take a long time and you wouldn't get that thrill when you finish every page (and each one is 8 hours worth of work, even for a speedy artist, right?)
2) Specialization... in my observation, the most literary work always comes from writer-artists in the independent or small press scene, right? Maybe it's the case that a person who's primarily an artist just isn't usually literary enough to come up with that stuff (don't kill me! I'm just thinking aloud). That to really get to that level, you'd need someone who's primarily a writer to craft the thing,
but no artist in the indy scene wants to wed himself to someone else for so darn long... since writing and drawing is such an uneven spread of work. You know?

Eddie Campbell would be another good one, for detailing the human condition.

From an editor's standpoint, I think it's true the conditions are ripe now at many levels--creative, commercial and cultural--for new breakthroughs in the form. I think editors can play a part in what they foster and coach, or not. Between the world wars, Maxwell Perkins not only found Hemingway and Fitzgerald but it seems, believed in their promise more than they even did. There are other, near legendary editors, Ursula Nordstrom, who was a midwife to the great American children's book, and then Sonny Mehta, Victoria Wilson and others working today. I feel like the times we're in, as Paul posits here, demand that I look to some of these inspirations in doing what I'm trying to do, on this side of things.

I think you could throw Craig Thompson in there with the Bros.

I think we should keep one eye on Jeff Lemire for this literary quality. His approach to both the narrative and presentation was a watershed moment for me in recognizing how comics can be seen as literature.

I often wonder why we don't see more literary quality in the comics being published today, why we don't have a John Steinbeck or Robert Penn-Warren in our medium, authors who can unfold a filagreed theme across an extended storyline and touch on that ineffable shade we call "the human condition."

Wouldn't the Bros. Hernandez, especially Gilbert, be an example of such a creator(s)? But I can't think of anybody else offhand...

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