Category Archives: GRAPHIC NOVELS

Sequential dramaturgy

Lately I have been reading a lot of comics (graphic novels, bandes dessinées, stripovi, as you prefer), for a number of semi-work-related reasons, in large quantities and of all kinds: standard French 48-page serial albums; collections of one-page newspaper cartoons such as Titeuf and Gaston; indie samizdats from the US and Germany; luxurious editions of Hugo Pratt with Umberto Eco’s forewords; select manga; the occasional beautiful Italian work (Italian graphic novels are among my favourites); comic renditions of famous literary works (mostly rubbish); and German underground/indie, which I am only just discovering.

Reading so prolifically, and also as a career comic-reader, I have been noticing that many graphic novelists, mostly contemporary but also older, actually struggle with telling a story in sequential images. Their montage, editing, transitions, choice of angles, page layout, and caesuras (by which I mean, the point where one page ends and another begins, although this is not official comic-book language) are often confusing. This is not something I noticed before – either because it didn’t happen as much, or because I wasn’t as sharp-eyed, or because I was reading more comics from ‘mature’ comic scenes (Japanese, Italian, Belgian, Ex-Yugoslav), and fewer from ‘new’ ones (American, Australian, German).

The art of the comic, what makes it its own art form, consists perhaps of only two major poetic interventions: reducing a sequence of actions into key images, and organising such key images on a page to make a meaningful composition. A comic must make sense in a single image and on a single page, and between the key images and pages. As Debussy said, music the space between the notes. No one has explained it better than Scott McCloud:

Anyway, examples. Baru’s Autoroute du Soleil, while mostly good, had some very confusing action sequences, where it was entirely unclear what was happening to whom. Another classical French BD, the Nathael-Beja Les Compagnons du Reve, was fine on the level of page, but had such strange jumps between pages, as well as between albums themselves, that I could almost call it wannabe-postdramatic with a straight face. And what exists there of German graphic novelism has been so comprehensively disappointing that it single-handedly spoiled my until-then very high opinion of German culture: page after page of humourless, poorly graphically rendered, mostly pretentious rubbish, integrating neither the potential playfulness and imaginative freedom of the drawn medium, nor demonstrating real understanding of the craft of the sequential art. It seems quite obvious that German graphic novelists think that writing bleak, vaguely depressing stories is all it takes for their comics to be serious; but that is, of course, not the case with any art form.

Baru: Autoroute du Soleil. Source:

A little bit like what happens when I read so many bad plays in a row that every sign of craft warms my heart a bit, I have been really appreciative of the good work I’ve found: Katsuhiro Otomo’s Memories, Berberian/Dupuy’s Monsieur Jean, Kati Richenbach’s Jetzt kommt später. Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli’s City of Glass, a beautiful visual rendering of Paul Auster’s novel, deserved all the high praise it got. (It is a fairly uneven work, to be honest, but it wrestles with the novel interestingly: while much of it remains on the level of illustration, where it takes on the story-telling with its own tools, something truly wonderful comes to life.) Indeed, comparing the early sketches for this book with the final panels is really instructive, for the way all the usual, ordinary flaws present in the early drafts have disappeared by the final version: enormous verbatim textual chunks, cinematic angles (there is less need for rotation in comic books), a heaviness of image, static squares, and an absence of flow, dynamic page layouts, symbol, sign. (By the way, one book I found almost unbearable to read because of its insistence on committing all of these crimes at once, on almost every page, was Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, a graphic novel which really wanted to be a TV series.)

David Mazzucchelli: early page sketches for ‘City of Glass’. Source:

Paul Karasik & David Mazzucchelli: one of the spreads in the finished ‘City of Glass’. Source:

And so, anyway. The language of graphic novels is primarily visual, with text – the same way in which the language of theatre is made of images, sound and movement, with some text. The regular privileging of text over image, in many (but not all) Euro-American cultures, brings the two medium into the same trouble: always having to fight for the right of the non-textual to speak, defend its ability to convey meaning. Both, as somewhat marginal arts, are also under assault from the visual language of film, still the all-pervasive mass medium of our time. The archetypal error of text/image balance judgement in the comic book is the caption: “I walked down the street” accompanying a drawing of shoes on the pavement, or some such thing. In the theatre, it would be something like a spoken “I looked at him” in a monologue, followed by looking. You know what I mean.

I have been wondering why so much clunkiness lately in the sequential story-telling of comics, why such errors of visual dramaturgy (because that’s what it is). I think it can be brought down to two contradictory reasons: on the one hand, smaller readership and fewer craftsmen in the profession; on the other, more interest in both making and reading comics by newcomers to the medium. It is neither a happy nor a sad story, just one of shifting audience and sensibility. On the one hand, the delightfully smooth-flowing imagery of a classical comic, like Gaston or bloody Asterix, is getting harder to come by; on the other, we have people like Chris Ware, imbuing the medium with an advertising, graphic-design sensibility; or Shaun Tan, working on the thin fence between comic book and picture book.

The renaissance of the art form has brought about a renaissance of criticism, primarily, as usual, in blogs. I do often think theatre critics could learn a thing or two from reading how good comic criticism is inventing a language for itself from scratch, a way to talk about the integration of the visual, the textual, the narrative, the stylistic, and the symbolic, without getting bogged down in the (inadequate) vocabulary of literary criticism (where one always ends by offering the nonsensical praise: ‘this graphic novel is so good it isn’t a graphic novel, it’s literature!’). Even when they’re relatively frivolous, like this one; but especially when they’re serious, like this or that.

Scott Pilgrim; musings on misogyny

After enthusiastic recommendations of the film by at least three men very dear to me, I’ve finally given in and seen Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.

Having a mountain of work to catch up on, I don’t think I have time nor energy for an in-depth analysis, but the film did leave me with one very pointed question mark hanging above my head, and it is the question ethics and pop culture.

Abigail Nussbaum completely seconds my opinion when she writes, on her blog, that Scott Pilgrim is both a fun movie, and an indisputably misogynist movie. Giving herself more time and space to analyse how and why, and also to wrestle with a number of Pilgrim fans who loudly disagree in the comments’ section, Nussbaum gives a very rounded overview of the film, equally critical and generous: it is both a fun piece of cinematic fluff, and one more brick in the general misogyny of the American (Canadian-American?) pop culture.

To both the fans and the critics of the film, this bias may be even more tragic when considering that, by all accounts, the original graphic novel works hard to unwind precisely the cliches that the film perpetuates. What appears to have been a subtle(r) and (more) nuanced critique of a certain kind of narcissistic, young slacker male, has here turned into a largely positive portrait in which, in the end, all faults are forgiven, some personal growth detected, and the loser gets the patient, mature and beautiful girl. There is a passage, it seems, between the subculture and the pop culture that flattens nuance, as registered in the fact that the Bechdel test would pass the comic, but fail the film.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Left: the flawed but lowable protagonist. Right: the romantic lead with a bit of personality, but no character.

(What is the Bechdel test? First divulged to me by one of those same men who invited me to see this film, Bechdel test is named after Alison Bechdel, an American graphic novelist. It both demonstrates the comparative progressiveness of the American graphic novels when compared to the movies, and is a one-size-fits-all detector of misogyny in any narrative. To pass the Bechdel test, a movie:

1. has to have at least two women in it,
2. Who talk to each other,
3. About something besides a man.
Whether this detects merely misogyny, or the complete inability of our popular art to portray women as human beings is a pertinent question, but let’s leave it aside. Let’s also leave aside the fact that many, many other films, TV shows, and comics fail this test together with Scott Pilgrim, including such beacons of feminism as Sex and the City, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Frida. The point is, Scott Pilgrim fails.)

It’s interesting, however, that a few web-commentators have remarked on the misogyny, but no one to my knowledge has mentioned racism *. Yet Scott Pilgrim is also an undeniably racist film. From the first moment the only Asian character faints, clearly too anime to do anything better, I wondered how the portrayal of gay characters has managed to shoot up from caricature to respect, leaving behind such comparatively more frequent behaviour as being of non-Anglo-Saxon ethnicity.

Yes, it is possible to give a hundred reasons for why Knives Chau behaves the way she does: she is only 17, meant to be a boy-fantasy girlfriend, the most immature character, etc. But I watched the film thinking of all the young Chinese Australians I know, all wonderfully rounded and complex people, and wondered how annoying it must be for them to never see faces like their own in any more central, more complex, more rounded role than the screaming sidekick caricature. Yes, the immature 17-year-old girlfriend swoons and says OMG. But why is only the 17-year-old girlfriend a Chinese-Canadian? Why not the romantic interest, the lead, the mature best friend?

At the same time, I’ve always found it annoying that this question is treated with such seriousness by feminists, post-colonialists, and Left-leaning liberal people in general. How serious can this issue really be? Is it really on par with slavery and Hiroshima? I don’t think so.

But today, I’m wondering if we could compare this pop-cultural treatment of women and races with smoking – not least because I’m reading That Book That Makes People Quit Smoking.

Namely: every smoker tells herself and her friends the same story. It goes like this: “I am not addicted. I just enjoy it. I could stop any time. If I’m not stopping, it’s because I like smoking/it relaxes me/it helps my concentration/I only smoke socially.” But what happens when someone asked the smoker, given the absence of serious addiction, to stop smoking for a week to demonstrate that she could quit any time? Ah, now it’s impossible. The smoker realises she is unable to, but will come up with a host of reasons for why now is not the right time to try this: “it’s a stressful period/it’s a period of socialising/I am still enjoying it too much/I’ll quit next week.” Because each cigarette is perceived as only one cigarette, not one in a long chain, not one small perpetuation of an unhealthy addiction, it is very hard to make the smoker acknowledge that the addiction is there. But, just like the cat doesn’t need to know where the hot-water pipes lie under the floor, to know that sitting in certain places is nice and warm, so the smoker doesn’t need to understand the mechanics of the nicotine addiction to enjoy the familiar relaxation of satisfying it.

The low-level, low-intensity racism and sexism of pop culture is, I think, very similar to the low-intensity nicotine addiction. It provides so little palpable pleasure that neither is perceived as a conscious act of satisfying a deep desire, either for nicotine, or to humiliate women/other races. Each act of misogyny and racism, just like a cigarette, is perceived as a single act of satisfying something else (humour, narrative cliché, shorthand, simplifying for greater clarity). But when you ask a question that would reasonably follows from such disawoval, such as: why not have a Chinese girl as the romantic interest?, or why not have multiple developed female characters who talk to each other about music, politics or cars? (the equivalent of quitting smoking for a week), it becomes obvious that these disparate actions, however unintentional and unperceived, form a long chain of habit, in this case a habit of portraying other races as inferior, or women as nothing but love interests.

Taken separately, each instance of a female character with barely a trace of interior life (like Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim is a perfectly excusable artistic error – just like, taken separately, each cigarette is just one tiny little mistake in a very long life. But, cumulatively, one kills you and the other one builds a world in which all Chinese girls say OMG and swoon whenever they’re supposed to make a rational decision.

* This is actually incorrect, as I’ve discovered now. Prof. Susurro, a cinema/cultural studies academic, discusses precisely the racism of Scott Pilgrim on her extraordinary blog Like a Whisper **.
** This leads to another question: what would the Bechdel test for racism look like? Clearly, two people of colour talking to each other, but about what..?

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Shaun Tan: Tales from Outer Suburbia

Shaun Tan: Tales from Outer Suburbia
published in Australia by Allen&Unwin,
RRP: $29.95

I do not understand the paradox of Shaun Tan. In a country with no tradition, and subsequently little undestanding, of illustrated books, from comics to picture books, Shaun Tan, who is essentially a creator of both, is revered as a national treasure. From the brouhaha that followed the publication of The Arrival in 2006, which went on to win every award available to a book, you would think that Tan had single-handedly discovered the graphic novel. And yet, while among the awards was the Angouleme International Comic Festival Prize for Best Comic Book, in Australia Tan was being awarded mainly as a children’s novelist and picture book artist, and many a visually-ungifted person was suggesting that keeping the hues of an entire page consistent, in order to achieve consistency of mood, was Shaun Tan’s ground-breaking invention, and loudly wondered what this new genre, this wordless book in which action was moved by – gasp! – images, was going to be called.

My hazarded guess would be that, while Australia seems to have inherited a healthy tradition of books for children from England, image still seems to be viewed as something suspicious, lascivious, out of control. As we are collectively descending into a willful misunderstanding of childhood, sentimentalised, idealised and fantasised into a fairy-tale for adults, children’s books have become part of this sacred area of life, in which we all strive to protect the untouchable purity of childhood. The double-edged fascination with Shaun Tan’s work seems to derive from a complex mixture of total charmedness with his work, usually interpreted as complex and imaginative children’s stories (rather than complex allegories for adults, which they could easily be), thus taking part in the holy battle against the McDonaldization of our children, and high incompetence in all things pictorial, adding a dash of blind reverie to the healthy respect. Whichever way, Tan enjoys a status that no other maker of images in this country currently has. The joy we derive from reading his beautifully crafted, and exquisitely printed books comes hand in hand with a moral uprightness that no other popular artist seems to beat.

It is, thus, commonly understood that Tan’s work stands apart from every book currently in existence: that The Arrival is not a graphic novel, The Lost Thing not a picture book, Tales from Outer Suburbia not a collection of illustrated stories. Why, with such adoration ready to be showered on one artist, Australia doesn’t have a healthier graphic publishing industry, is a mystery yet to be resolved. For now, though, Tan has achieved the stature that allows him to create as he wishes, and is using his freedom well.

Tales from Outer Suburbia is a slender book of great quality: fifteen short stories, ranging from traditional illustrated stories to two-panel illustrations with words. Tan dives head-on into the coherently, convincedly magical realm of childhood, recreating the solidity of all the beliefs children stick to whilst unable to prove. Treating the paradoxes of this outlook with the same seriousness he applies to the juggle of paradoxical beliefs that we call the adult life, Tan creates a malleable, colourful and softly uncertain world. When the two brothers in Our expedition embark on a quest to find what’s beyond the last pages of their father’s street directory, the reader is as uncertain as they are as to whether the city simply ends with a clear cut. Equally, in Alert but not alarmed, government-prescribed ballistic missiles in every back yard are slowly painted, decorated and turned into bird houses; whether one kind of swarm intelligence is better than the other is entirely up to you to decide.

Meanwhile, the mysterious asocial, and alienatingly denatured yet inurbane world of the Australian outer suburbia is, in Tan’s book, as grim and exciting as in real life, scrubbed of sentimentality, yet enchantingly full of possibilities. The mysteries in the book are not in the forest, beyond the hill; they are not immediate, dark and scary. No, they are the mysteries inside the neighbouring houses (as in No other country), the unimaginable vast society beyond the suburb (as in The Amnesia Machine), or in the behaviour of the transitory, alien people that populate outer suburbia (from Broken Toys to Stick Figures). Tan’s interest in migration, deeply investigated in The Arrival, is present again. In the wonderfully observed Eric, an exchange student asks questions that “weren’t the kind of questions I had been expecting”, while his mother comforts the host boy by saying that “It’s a cultural thing”. Coming to terms with the world of adults is paralleled by the learning that inevitably accompanies immigration in No Other Country, or even, in Grandpa’s Story, marriage. Unlike the magic possibilities of the Victorian mansion, or the industrial city, the mysterious possibilities of outer suburbia are less a function of its crammed fullness than its vagueness.

Tan, who has graduated in both Fine Arts and Literature, has a knack with the words, but the brilliance of his work stems really from his mastery of visual story-telling. In Outer Suburbia, there is never a word used where an image would be better suited, and no image inserted at any point in the story that isn’t just right. In Distant Rain, a collage of words and small images, is a stuttering, rhythmic story that changes colour with mood, and breaks into a two-page ominous climax just before the words rain down and the cloud dissolves into a pink, quiet epilogue. The entire centre of Grandpa’s Story, the honeymoon adventures of the narrator’s grandparents, are given over to panel-large images, and every turn of the page in Eric was considered in the terms of the accumulation of new information.

Small and unpretentious, Tales from Outer Suburbia is no more a children’s book than an illustrated, say, book of recipes would be. It is a pretty, light and deceivingly innocuous-looking read, equal parts whimsical and wise.

Jason Lutes: Jar of Fools

Jar of Fools by Jason Lutes
published by Faber Trade Fiction,
distributed in Australia by Allen & Unwin
RRP: AUD $29.95

It is the recurrent and tragic curse of the appreciation of le graphic novel in the Anglosphere that highest praise, just like in the geeky introduction to Jar of Fools, soars in this vein: “Jason Lutes not only writes and draws good comics, he writes and draws good literature.” Through the Pulitzer-winning Maus, spawning the documentary comic from Joe Sacco to Satrapi’s Persepolis, comics have found their way out of the geek ghetto as substitute literature, as books with pictures.

To praise an achievement in a medium by elevating it to another, superior medium, is nonsense. Just like no film can be flattered by calling it, say, so good it’s no longer film, it’s theatre, so should a graphic novel not be asked to be prose. In this conflation of words and excellence, American comics are caught in an uneasy point, in which credibility is bestowed upon them by literary reviewers, for whom wordiness seems to signify accomplishment, who may be well-placed to position Tomine with Raymond Carver or Jason Lutes with Hemingway, but whose understanding of the purpose of images within comics often seems no better than sketchy. In this precarious balance, trying to keep happy, on the one hand, an audience that rarely articulates its own preference (rather than tribal and personal taste), and on the other an articulate, but often profoundly misguided mainstream collective of reviewers, many graphic artists seem not to be learning the rules of their own medium. The community, in other words, sometimes seems to be breaking down as a guild, losing its craft, its sets of skills.

To praise Jar of Fools for its literary merit is an even greater overlook, specifically because Jason Lutes is as good as he is because he understands the difference. Reading Lutes’s work, one is astonished by the fluidity, the ease with which images tell the story, so skillfully is the eye guided through the images. Lutes writes and draws, visibly, in the cartoonish Franco-Belgian school (citing Herge’s Tintin as a huge influence), characterized by a certain light, solid craftiness, and has often made a public attempt to remove himself from the American mainstream. In interviews, he has often complained about the lack of simple mastery of the medium that graphic artists (in the US) seem to exhibit: from the angles employed, the story-telling tempo, to the right amount of text on the page. To my surprise, I find that his clear, realistic yet simple style, and slightly off-beat humour, remind me strongly of Max Bunker’s Alan Ford, although it would be a strange coincidence indeed if Lutes was aware of this Italian classic. What may be shining through, instead, is a loan from the Italian simplified realism, artists such as Manara, or Giardino. Whichever case, it is a finely wrought graphic skill quite unlike the clunky, self-conscious attempts of the underground artists, or the over-computerized stylization of the new American mainstream. Like the best of craftsmen, Lutes makes his medium invisible.

Jar of Fools, first published by Black Eye Productions in 1994, re-published by Drawn&Quarterly in 2003, and finally available in Australia in a sexy faber&faber edition, is Lutes’s first graphic novel. Not quite fitting into any category, it is simple, genreless, graphic novelism. In a Seattle that’s neither now nor in the past, a hopeless, aimless magician Ernie Weiss is trying to get over a failed romance and rebuild a career with the help of his mentor, Al Flosso, who is combating dementia. A con man with a little daughter (who may be the greatest magician talent of them all) joins them in their drift through life, while Ernie’s ex-girlfriend Esther wanders in and out of the story, haunted by the suicide of Ernie’s brother. Jar of Fools evokes many things: early 20th-century stories of hunger and unpaid rent, from Hamsun to Hemingway, monochrome early Jarmusch, the vague sadness of the urban loser graphic novel genre. Most incisively, however, Lutes is able to say great things about bereavement and loneliness, using nothing but clean, subtle drawings.

It is an autumnal, quietly poignant tale, and it trots along with poise and grace until, in a sudden injection of haste, the last 15 pages turn the book into a rushed, Hollywood-like tying of loose ends, coupling of the separated and tragic but inevitable parting of the close. There are many reasons why a serialized comic in the early 1990s would take such a turn, but not a single one makes up for the fact that a fine, very fine graphic novel is thus turned into something similar to a well-done weekend afternoon television movie: a little gem unloved by every part of the system that creates it, except the enthusiastic author.

The Berlin books, Lutes’s current project, is certainly a more mature, balanced read. The second part of the envisaged trilogy, Berlin: City of smoke, has been recently released and is ammassing praise around the world; and it is the one Jason Lutes work I would suggest merits the ‘masterpiece’ moniker. Jar of Fools is merely a solid first graphic novel, and a good introduction to an ambitious young artist, committed to his craft.