Mainstream Media: “Comics is easy!”

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NEW PET PEEVE:

 

It’s not exactly news that when covering comics mainstream media and literary outlets often focus on writers to the exclusion of artists. Articles about DC/Vertigo’s line of original graphic novels written by well-known novelists, like Incognegro (written by Mat Johnson and illustrated by Warren Pleece) and The Alcoholic (written by Jonathan Ames and illustrated by Dean Haspiel) generally profiled the writers and the novelty of their comics debuts, while making passing reference to the veteran cartoonists they worked with (though Vertigo’s own marketing and book design likely deserve some of the blame). Not surprising considering that such pieces are written by people who make some or all of their living writing and probably do not draw.

Notoriously, when the graphic novel Skim was nominated for the Canadian Governor General’s Literary Awards, writer Mariko Tamaki was named in the nomination, while artist Jillian Tamaki was not. Complaints throughout the comics world and an open letter signed by several prominent Canadian and American cartoonists were to no effect.

The latest thing to catch my eye in this area is a blurb on the back of Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s wonderful A Drifting Life. The quotation, which comes from Publishers Weekly‘s 7/7/08 review of Tatsumi’s Good-Bye, reads,

“Masterful . . . reads as if Haruki Murakami decided to try his hand at manga.”

Now, it’s entirely possible that I’m simply reading too much into this. What the reviewer seems to be trying to say is that Tatsumi’s work in Good-Bye is as good as Murakami’s writing, but the phrasing comes across as dismissive of the artistic side of comics. Setting aside the question of whether writing comics requires different skills than writing prose, it is taken for granted that Murakami’s manga would be as good as Tatsumi’s because, well, the writing’s the hard part, but the drawing’s probably easy. Forget all the work that goes into learning to draw—the use of the words “decided” and “try his hand” make it sound as though Murakami could make great comics on a lark. This phrasing most of all, and the picture it paints of Murakami idly picking up a brush one day and creating a masterpiece, was what raised my eyebrow.

I’m sure none of this is what the writer intends, and there is actually a single line in the review mentioning Tatsumi’s artwork, but that crucial sentence comparing Tatsumi to Murakami completely elides the biggest single difference between the forms they work in. It reveals an approach to comics that focuses on story to the detriment of the visual aspect of comics, essentially taking the art for granted without thinking very hard about the challenges of that part of the medium. The writer could just as easily have argued that Good-Bye reads as if Tatsumi had collaborated with Murakami, or like the kind of manga Murakami would make if he could draw (though even this has problems—would similar writing styles guarantee similar art styles? Are their writing styles similar?).

Murakami is an acclaimed novelist, and writing that Tatsumi’s work is as good as his is high praise (presumably—I confess I’ve not read any of his work), so Drawn and Quarterly can hardly be blamed for using this blurb on the book. However, it’s hopefully not too much to ask that as comics receive more and more coverage from mainstream media and literary outlets that those outlets recognize that comics are not simply illustrated prose, and that the art in comics deserves the same critical attention as the writing.

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