As a reader, I have long-term commitment issues with genre, and I’m always anxious about my next book choice.
I’m not one of those people who can tear through the entire Game of Thrones collection without taking significant time away after one or two books; I can’t consume Updike’s entire catalog, one book after the next like I’m on a mission; I can’t even finish a Philip Roth Library of America edition without breaks in between books to check out something new. Maybe I’ve got reader’s ADD (though I suspect that the patient act of “reading” is the absolute opposite of “ADD”), or maybe I just display genre infidelity.
In any case, I’m constantly switching genres and forms like they are all seasonal beers available on the shelf for only a couple more days; if I don’t switch from fiction to nonfiction for my next book, I might never again get the chance to enjoy nonfiction! Must shift from “indie fiction” to “craft book” to Franzen to Lindsay Hunter to local history to Oktoberfest to Winter Warmer to Summer Ale. I’m the guy at a buffet who fears that, if he doesn’t load up his plate with everything, ice cream and carved turkey and salad on the same plate, he won’t be allowed back to the buffet line for whatever he missed.
And early this year, perhaps spurred by my upcoming Graphic Narrative panels at the Florida Writer’s Conference and the AWP Conference in Chicago, I became suddenly anxious over my comic and “mixed-media” reading habits. Crap. I’d been reading so much prose lately. One Story. Ayiti. Look at Me. Three Ways of the Saw. How could I be on an academic panel about comics if I was reading so much straight-forward prose? What sort of “expert opinion” could I really deliver?
So I made a big push in February and March to load up on text-image work. I started with Best American Comics 2011, then spent some time with both Nate Powell’s Swallow Me Whole and Jim Shooter’s ‘90s other-worldly fantasy epic Warriors of Plasm.
The Plasm comic book, by the way, was an impulse purchase off Amazon, a transparent attempt to—now that I have a child—relive my own childhood. “Ooh, maybe if I buy this, Jackson will someday read it! Then we can talk about it, and it won’t be nerdy for me to read this old fantasy comic. It’ll just be good parenting!” That sort of thing. And I have a feeling that this is going to be a running theme in this essay series: is my baby giving me an excuse to re-live my old childhood passions without fear of being branded a nerd? What happens if he someday calls me a nerd, and mocks my lack of sophistication? (“Seriously, Dad, you like comic books? Sigh. Pass me the Pynchon.”)
Anyway. While the Warriors of Plasm book lacks quality production value as a “collected trade paperback” (it was published in the ‘90s, at a time when the comic company Defiant was going under, and it looks like a cheap rush job), the individual issues contained in the collection are still striking: fantastic art by David Lapham, fantastic colors. The story can be a little hokey at times, but Jim Shooter was creating something distinct from the big guns/ big muscles superhero garbage of the time, and—at least in my mind—the premise of Warriors of Plasm still feels fresh and original today. Here’s the basic idea: the comic centers upon a world that is literally a living organism, with all of its inhabitants devoted to seeking out new worlds and new civilizations that they can feed to the “org of Plasm.” The world has its own strange culture and religion, where everyone seems to believe that murder and killing are all right, so long as the carcass is fed to the planet to keep it alive; Plasm even has its own bizarre conflicts over whether a “mulched” creature truly becomes one with the living organism, or whether death-as-food is just…well, death.
And really, I could spend all day looking at the David Lapham panels, the gooey plasm and the hundred-alien battles. Characters ripping one another to pieces in a violent game called “Splatterball.” It’s gory-gross fun, and when you’re reading adventure or fantasy comics, that’s what you’re hoping for. Give me new worlds. Give me epic scale. Give me things that I wouldn’t imagine on my own. And in the case of Warriors of Plasm, give it to me for $5, shipping included. I’ve never been a huge fantasy fan, but—especially now, with Game of Thrones wrapping up its second season—I do see the appeal of highly visual worlds that we’ve never even imagined before, strange and unknown maps for the reader (or viewer) to explore, and old and ancient lineages that shape cultures and countries. When it isn’t formulaic and cheesy, fantasy can teach us as much about ourselves as any other type of fiction, and while Warriors of Plasm was a bit cheesy, it was also—for a new father—a quick and fun escape.
On the flip side, Nate Powell’s black-and-white Swallow Me Whole was a much darker experience, a graphic novel that…well, to put it mildly…didn’t really want to be fun. I read the book over just a couple of sittings, and actually finished the final 80-100 pages in one evening when a few of Heather’s old sorority friends came to the house to meet Jackson. These should be frightening events, by the way, these sorority girl reunions in my living room…there is always wine, and there is Bravo and Real Housewives and Sex and the City, and all “conversation” is screamed in glass-shattering voices. And someone inevitably says the word “panties,” or mentions lady products, or talks shit about her boyfriend or husband or whatever, and I get really uncomfortable. So yeah, it should be an agonizing experience for any male. But at the same time, despite the female invasion, I usually wind up slinking away to the other room and scoring some real “me time,” watching horror movies by myself in the bedroom, reading books on the couch while the girls gossip, etc.
This time when the girls came over, there was this added bonus: everyone wanted to hold Jackson! I could read books without worrying about feeding or burping or rocking my baby: he was the main attraction. From one girl to the next, he was passed along, rocked, while Andy Cohen talked to the Housewives in the background and gave out his Mazel of the Week. And by the time the girls were too wine-drunk to be trusted with my son any longer, I swooped in to rescue him and ensure the survival of his masculinity; Jackson was now too tired to lift his head, let alone squirm or cry, and he was already dreaming of his 3 AM feeding, and so I plopped down and let him sleep on my chest, his tiny arms and hands clinging to my collar, and I finished Swallow Me Whole without any real protest from my baby. He slept there while I read a graphic novel about an outcast high school girl who collects and steals dead bugs, and who communicates with a bullfrog she stole from a local science museum and which she believes to be a god. Yes, that’s the story.
It’s an odd book, dark and twisted, and—like Ryan Bradley’s Prize Winners, which I read in January—it had that unsettling effect of making me look around the room constantly to see if anyone was watching me and judging me for what I was reading. With a text-only novel like Prize Winners, you’re mostly concerned that someone will glance over and read the large-type title of a story (“Pubes”) and wonder what the hell is wrong with you, what the hell are you reading? But with a comic, any passerby can see the full story illustrated for them, and can say “Oh my God, what is that?” in a much more alarmed tone. And now that I’ve got a baby, the question also implies that I should know better…for God’s sake, I’m a father now, and I’m reading a story called “Pubes”…while my son is sitting right there?
But really, even though the concept sounds bizarre, the artwork in Swallow Me Whole is beautiful in its dark way. It’s solid black and white, no grays, so lucid that you can see the brush strokes, and Powell knows how to create an elegant chaos on the page, swarms of bugs engulfing neighborhoods, in a way that doesn’t seem scribbled or lazy, but meaningful and emotionally devastating. His use of word balloons is crazy, also, with characters at high school speaking and gossiping over one another, the balloons colliding and sinking and overwhelming. You can’t read half of what they’re saying, and this strategy doesn’t help you to better understand the narrative, but it does create that same slice-of-life/ eavesdropping feeling that you might get from watching, say, The Deer Hunter’s wedding scene, or that Gus van Sant movie Elephant, where we are lulled into thinking that we are participants in the mundanity of the day.
In the end, though, did I enjoy the story in Swallow Me Whole? No. The artwork was brilliant, and Powell certainly challenged himself to create something strange and different, but the story didn’t seem confident or even clear; in the end, it just seemed odd for the sake of being odd.
And that’s sort of my problem with many graphic novels. Personally, I always have a character-first mentality with my reading and my writing (the character and his/her conflict leads to the construction of plot, leads to the choice of scenes, leads to the style of the writing/voice, leads to the over-arching themes explored…it all starts with character…a character with a conflict is the story), and it can be hard to critique or criticize comics with this approach. Swallow Me Whole won the 2009 Eisner Award for Best Graphic Novel, so who am I to take a counter-opinion? But at the same time, I get the feeling that the industry itself—maybe as reaction to the episodic and formulaic nature of generic superhero stories—sometimes rejects or discounts story, as if “story” automatically equals “formulaic” and “juvenile.” Perhaps it feels more “original” and “groundbreaking” to have a comic without a clear story or clear protagonist or clear conflict; perhaps the lack of story is seen as “literary” by the critics in a position to make such distinctions for graphic novels, a book that “rises above the story-dependent glut of adventure comics.”
I don’t see it that way, though. “Character-Driven Story” is the reason I read, and without it, all else is just an art gallery or portfolio (impressive as the art might be). I want honest characterization. I want a conflict that moves me and demands my emotional investment, and I don’t see anything easy or unoriginal about that. It’s tough work to write a good story.
Still, I would recommend Swallow Me Whole for the bizarre experience it puts the reader through. Again, like The Deer Hunter, I suppose. There’s something happening in this book, and the reader is lost in it. In the end, I wasn’t satisfied with how it built or tied together, but it was worth falling into through the duration of its page count.
As part of my early-year comic binge, I also consumed The Best American Comics 2011, an extremely well-produced anthology from Houghton-Mifflin that never fails to capture some of the year’s best work. There’s only one problem, though: the book captures the year’s best work. It doesn’t capture the year’s best short work, as we see in The Best American Short Stories or The Best American Non-Required Reading. Instead, it includes excerpts of a handful of graphic novels, and a few pages—here and there—of ongoing comic strips and web comics. Sometimes the excerpts capture a stand-alone story within the much-larger narrative of the graphic novel, but often the excerpt is awkward when divorced from the context of its original home, and fails to capture whatever it was that made the full-length graphic novel into one of the “best” comics of the year. In the case of one excerpt (for the graphic novel adaptation of Benjamin Percy’s Refresh, Refresh, which I read before picking up this anthology), the editors actually chose the full crisis and climax of the book. Let me repeat: they chose the emotionally charged conclusion, a passage that (yes) truly qualifies as one of the “Best American Comic (passages) of the Year,” but, in so doing, the passage loses all power that it was supposed to have, because the reader is not along for the full journey…it’s like watching the final episode of The Wire without having watched the complete series. Additionally, the excerpt reveals the story’s resolution, thus ruining the story for anyone who happened upon this anthology and then decided, “Hey, maybe I’ll check out this graphic novel.” It’s a spoiler. It’s the guy at the movie theater who—as you’re buying your ticket to The Sixth Sense—says, “Oh, hey, Bruce Willis is dead the whole time.”
For years, I’ve been pulling for The Best American Comics series. I hope it succeeds. I really do. But right now, it feels like a record company’s CD sampler. And if it’s going to reach new audiences (and not just serve as a catalogue of books that hard-core comic fans can check out elsewhere), it’s going to have to shift its focus to short stories, to work that stands alone and offers readers its own self-contained world. After all, there is no Best American Novels anthology, so far as I know. A novel is its own world, and you don’t disrupt it by removing a chunk and calling it a story (well, you can technically do anything you want, but that doesn’t mean it’ll work). And a short story—whether text or comic—is its own world, too, its very own form, and there’s nothing disgraceful with saying that “This anthology will collect the best short comics and mini-comics from the past year.” You’re not letting the world of comics down when you do that. Instead, I think that you’re opening it up, celebrating distinctive forms (short comic as distinctive from graphic novel or serialized comic), celebrating the art of the short story and the comic all at once.
As an end note: mostly as a joke for my wife (but also to satisfy my own curiosity), I recently bought Adam Mansbach’s Go the Fuck to Sleep, a faux children’s book meant for parents with babies and toddlers. Basically, it’s a picture book coupled with a very adult poem, touching upon the unending aggravation of a child who won’t fall asleep, and the inevitable unraveling of the parent’s sanity and self-confidence (“What am I doing wrong? Oh God, what am I doing wrong? AHHHH!” etc.). Here’s a book I can read to my wife and child, I thought! It’ll be funny. We’ll all laugh! We can all relate! Ha ha ha! Jackson doesn’t know the words we’re saying, so if there’s an occasional f-bomb, I’ll just say it softly…or bleep it out. Whatever.
Earlier, I mentioned how uncomfortable it can be to read dirty or profane material while a baby sits on your lap.
Well. Maybe I should have considered my own observations on the matter when I tried to read this aloud, and expected my wife to laugh. Go the Fuck to Sleep is hilarious: story of my life: story of every parent’s life. And it’s a brilliant example of the possibilities of mixed-media literature, with Mansbach tackling and warping the genre of the children’s book to (despite the humor of the story) demonstrate the honest insecurities that most new parents actually have. It’s funny, and it’s genuine, and it even offers insights about literature and genre. And I read it aloud, even though Heather wanted nothing to do with the book, and I kept saying, “Seriously, even Jackson can appreciate the humor,” and I displayed it on the coffee table, but Heather keeps burying it under other magazines, or stuffing it in dark corners and claiming that it will bring “bad juju into the house.”
I don’t agree. But then again, Jackson has pooped on me more than he’s pooped on Heather. So maybe there’s something to what she’s saying. So…um…a tip from this father to the many other husbands and dads out there: maybe just read the book on your own.