I’m not particularly drawn to biographies, and certainly not music biographies, but I make exceptions for Elvis. I was also swayed because I have heard Peter Guralnick’s books praised many times. Most satisfying about Last Train to Memphis, volume one of Guralnick’s two volume biography of Elvis Presley, was Guralnick’s ability to humanize his subject. The persona of Elvis, years after his death, is such a caricature, even a joke, that it can be hard to remember that there was a real, living, breathing person named Elvis Presley. The book contained what were, for me, some fantastic revelations. For one, Elvis was nearly done in when he was a youngster, not by the difficulties of his quest for fame, but by the swiftness with which it arrived. In a year’s time, he went from being a nobody to being one of the most recognizable faces in the country, a man whose presence literally caused riots whenever he appeared in public. For Elvis, it was a major struggle simply to adjust to this new life. Television documentaries and magazine articles often mention in passing that Elvis’ music and persona caused quite a stir, moral outrage even, when he appeared on the scene in the 1950s. Such stories sound quaint and exaggerated in this day and age, but with the context provided by Guralnick, I was able to see how groundbreaking Elvis really was, both musically and socially. Finally, I was enthralled by Guralnick’s portraits of Elvis’ supporting cast, quirky characters like Elvis’ mother Gladys, his manager Colonel Tom Parker, and the guy who gave him his first big break, Sam Phillips. The book rekindled my love, as it surely will rekindle yours, for the early days of rock and roll, and it left me with a serious hankering to read volume two of the biography, Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley sometime real soon.
When it comes to terse, morally ambivalent novels about sexually compromised men and bullfighting, I pick James M. Cain‘s Serenade any day of the week over Hemingway‘s The Sun Also Rises. Sure, Hemingway’s novel’s got its beauties, but there’s a humorlessness about Hemingway, a feeling of high seriousness–in The Sun Also Rises, especially–that’s a little off-putting, a little ridiculous. Cain, on the other hand, even though his work’s very much in the tragic line, still has a taste for comic details (He describes a whorehouse in Guatemala City with cans of vegetables stacked behind the bar: “When a guy in Guatemala really wants to show the girls a good time, he blows them to canned asparagus.”) Somehow these comic touches make the tragedy hit you that much harder.
And I’m not the only one who thinks Cain’s the crack-shot of the masculinist/Noir/laconic/hard-boiled set of early twentieth-century American writers: “Nobody has pulled it off the way Cain does, not Hemingway, not even Raymond Chandler,” wrote Tom Wolfe. And yet Cain’s not half so well-known as his peers—maybe because his two most famous novels, The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity, became two even more famous Noir films—films so famous perhaps that they all but eclipsed their literary origins. Also, it was Raymond Chandler who adapted Cain’s novel for the film version of Double Indemnity—so there may be some legitimate confusion about where Cain ends and Chandler begins.
But the point here is Cain’s Serenade, which is, like The Sun Also Rises, a novel about an exiled American whose sexuality’s in a bad way. Cain’s American exile, John Henry Sharp, is a once-great opera singer whose voice has dried up mysteriously, though he’s still in his prime. The mystery of what happened to Sharp’s voice is tied up with sex, but I leave the specifics out, since the book’s better if you don’t know ahead of time. Sharp’s been relegated to the opera in Mexico City—where supposedly even washed up singers can get along alright. Except that what’s left of Sharp’s voice isn’t even good enough for the Mexicans and he’s had to quit that as well. When you meet him, he’s down to his last three pesos and he’s just seen a woman he can’t stop looking at–the woman, it goes without saying, who’s going to mean big trouble for him:
I was in the Tumpinamba, having a bizcocho and coffee, when this girl came in. Everything about her said Indian, from the maroon rebozo to the black dress with the purple flowers on it, to the swaying way she walked, that no woman ever got without carrying pots, bundles, and baskets on her head from the time she could crawl. But she wasn’t any of the colors that Indians come in. She was almost white, with just the least dip of café con leche. Her shape was Indian, but not ugly. Most Indian women have a rope of muscle over their hips that give them a high-waisted, mis-shapen look, thin, bunchy legs, and too much breast-works. She had plenty in that line, but her hips were round and her legs had a soft line to them…All that I only half-saw. What I noticed was her face.
Maybe it’s just that I’m a sucker for Cain’s hit-the-ground-running Noir story-telling–talk as straight and sharp as a machete blade and twice as likely to leave you sore, since Noir heroes’ stories never end well. Cain, by his own account “shuddered at the least hint of the highfalutin, the pompous, or the literary” and true to his word, there’s none in Serenade. Yet, for my money, Cain’s writing is a far more satisfying and impressive literary experience than much of the self-consciously “literary” and “poetic” and “lyrical” stuff that passes for fiction nowadays. It also has a real, artfully designed plot—something that contemporary “literary” authors apparently find vulgar—and this plot rip-roars along with astonishing agility and speed. You also don’t know where’s it’s going, how’s it’s going to end (other than pretty badly—it’s a Noir novel, after all), and that uncertainty about what might be coming round the next page is exhilarating too.
There’s also something breathtaking about Cain’s hero/narrator’s unabashed frankness about sex and race (“Yes, it was rape, but only technical, brother, only technical.”), something that makes you realize how constricted the parameters of our cultural discussions about sex and race have become, and our books and movies about them—how timid and polite we’ve all become. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t have a hankering for hate-speech or stereotypes, nor do I want to return to the good ol’ pre-civil rights, -women’s rights, -gay rights days—shiver me timbers, no. But I do sometimes feel—especially in the middle of a ripping Noir crime novel that’s tossing off generalizations about women, nationalities, cops, and pretty much any group you can think of like handfuls of confetti—that we’ve all become so nervous about being offensive and our sensitivity to offense is so heightened that we’d all just rather not talk about sex and race in any real way, certainly not explore the murkier side of things. (Manohla Dargis recently wondered why we don’t make movies like Last Tango In Paris anymore in “The Closing of the American Erotic“; Katie Roiphe, in “The Naked and the Conflicted,,” why the sex in contemporary literature is so tepid—this would be why: we’re fucking terrified. I know I am.)
But Cain wasn’t terrified. The murkier side of things is where Cain’s novel pitches it tent—where it begins, middles, and ends. And, really, Cain, for all his name implies, and for all of his hero’s deliciously off-color opinions and confidence in his own perceptions, tells in Serenade, a story about how utterly, even tragically, wrong most of these opinions turn out to be. Juana Montes, the girl in the maroon rebozo, whom Sharp first takes to be “a little dumb muchacha,” is a lot sharper and stronger than Sharp knows; She sees him a lot better than he sees her, for all of his keen, meticulous descriptions of her body, her country, her people. The tragedy of the Noir hero is always some version of this: He sees so much, narrates and describes what he sees so meticulously, beautifully, and yet fails to see the destruction that awaits him. This blindness is the mark of Oedipus, the original tragic hero and the Noir hero’s earliest ancestor.
Cain wrote of his work: “I, so far as I can sense the pattern of my mind, write of the wish that comes true, for some reason a terrifying concept, at least to my imagination…I think my stories have some quality of the opening of the forbidden box, and that it is this, rather than violence, sex, or any of the things usually cited by way of explanation, that gives them the drive so often noted. Their appeal is first to the mind, and the reader is carried along as much by his own realization that the characters cannot have this particular wish and survive, and his curiosity to see what happens to them, as by the effect on him of incident, dialogue, or character.” What he describes sounds an awful lot like Greek tragedy—and this is the feeling you have throughout a Cain novel, a Noir novel or film: the inexorable movement towards disaster—that begins in Serenade as soon as John Howard Sharp lays eyes on Juana Montes. (But the novel and it’s tragedy isn’t just about sex, it’s very much about art, namely singing opera, and in this it shares with Darren Aronofsky‘s Black Swan the idea that the art sometimes destroys the artist.)
These days, novels and people seem to have lost their sense of fate and destiny (Tana French is something of an exception—she’s doing a beautiful sort of brogue-Noir right now). Fatalism is out of fashion—and it’s infantile world-view, I’m often told when I defend it—but it does make for a damn good story.
“Comics Not Just For Kids Anymore, Reports 85,000th Mainstream News Story,” The Onion announced on July 10, 2012. There’s truth there, but only so much. Critics in The New York Times Book Review, Slate, NPR and The New Yorker now appraise individual comics without questioning the value of the medium as a whole. The cliché still appears in outlets whose editors should know better, but it’s unlikely The Onion could tell the same joke in another 10 years.
The best way to kill a debate is to avoid acknowledging it and comics artists are as guilty as anyone else of prolonging the argument. In 2004, I attended a talk by Art Spiegelman on his September 11 book. He explained his layout methods in detail. It was a good discussion. He also kept defending the right of comics artists to sit at the adults’ table. That was irritating. In 2006, Houghton Mifflin added comics to its Best American series list. Alison Bechdel, the guest editor of the 2011 edition, was ambivalent about working in a “newly legitimized art form.” The problem is generational. Younger comics writers and artists tend not to defend the seriousness of their vocation. If they inhabit the margins of culture, they know there’s nothing intrinsic to the medium that places them there.
Scott McCloud, the guest editor of the 2014 edition of Best American Comics, — the series editor is now Bill Kartalopoulos — is famous for improving the debate. In the early ’90s, McCloud wrote Understanding Comics, a comic book about comic books that explained how the medium reinvents time and space and imagines realities that can’t be adapted to other media. Reinventing Comics, which was published in 2000, was a prescient analysis of how the Internet and the digital world would affect comics readers and creators. He can be as defensive as Spiegelman, but he’s also a smarter interpreter. Like the earliest political philosophers, McCloud points out the obvious and makes it sound profound only because no one before him wrote the obvious down.
The Best American Comics 2014 reads as a sequel to McCloud’s theoretical studies. Previous guest editors instructed readers to thumb through the anthologies and choose work that interests them most just as they would browse the shelves in a comics shop. McCloud asks that you read his anthology in order, cover-to-cover, and that you treat it as a critical narrative. He divides his book into discrete sections, presenting a taxonomy of genres. The book is an argument on the state of comics in the second decade of the 21th century.
What makes a great comic great? McCloud summarizes the criteria:
Is the story built around quiet everyday events or autobiography? Check. Does it have a dark satiric undercurrent? Check. Does our protagonist have a low opinion of him/herself? Check. Is there a complete absence of anything that might remotely remind you of a superhero comic? Check.
He’s being facetious, but the gatekeepers, those who honor what Ted Rall once told me was “the Fantagraphics crowd,” seem to always honor comics that follow at least one of these criteria. Many of the comics McCloud selected from an enormous pile Kartalopoulos gave him follow at least one of the first three and pretty much all of them follow the fourth. (McCloud wanted but was unable to include Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye comics.)
“Great Comics” are not the same as “Great Fiction” or “Great Non-Fiction.” Any New York Times critic would have savaged the sentimentality in Craig Thompson’s Blankets if it came packaged in a prose novel. Bechdel needs her images to sell her wit; in a comic the famous “Bechdel Test” is astute, but the average male reader would roll his eyes if he first encountered her theory in one of the online essays it spawned. A great comic does not have to be sentimental nor simple, but sentimentality and simplicity are not problems for comics.
“High Road to the Shmuck Seat” by Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Robert Crumb from Best American Comics 2014 edited by Bill Kartalopoulos. Originally appeared in Viewotron #2. Copyright (c) 2013. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
That much is obvious in the opening section of McCloud’s anthology, dedicated to the recent work of old masters. In “High Road to the Schmuck Seat,” R. Crumb portrays himself as a happily married aging pervert and not as a raging Mickey Sabbath. His grotesque line drawing, which he’s used throughout his career to express an unrelenting sexual anxiety, now obscures a sweet loving heart. In Charles Burns’s The Hive, teenagers bond over anatomical drawings. Burns’s cleanly-drawn entrails sit comfortably next to his old-before-their-time adolescents. It’s a touching scene. Call it dark sentimentality.
“Drama” (excerpt) by Raina Telgemeier from Best American Comics 2014 edited by Bill Kartalopoulos. Originally appeared in Drama. Copyright (c) 2012. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
“Dark sentimentality.” I put the phrase in a Google search and out came a list of indie rock reviews. Take from that what you will, but it’s the dominant mood in the anthology and it bleeds from one comic to the next and one section to the next, from adventure comics to family memoirs. “Raising Readers,” a section dedicated to children’s comics, contains excerpts from two devastating depictions of childhood loneliness, Raina Telgemeier’s Drama and Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault’s Jane, the Fox and Me. The excerpt from Drama ends with a full-page panel of an empty playground. A small-scale strip from Chris Ware’s Building Stories, which McCloud names as the best book of the year, serves as a grim counterpoint with its depiction of a mother discovering the pain of solitude as her child grows older and more independent. Ware and Raina Telgemeier understand the eerie power of bold block colors and negative space. They make clichés sublime. They make small emotions huge.
Hip Hop Family Tree” (excerpt) by Ed Piskor from Best American Comics 2014 edited by Bill Kartalopoulos. Originally appeared in Hip Hop Family Tree. Copyright (c) 2013. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
You may not have to adjust your mood from one comic to the next or one section to the next, but you do have to adjust your eye. The “Testimonials” section includes excerpts from two histories of American music, Frank M. Young and David Lasky’s wonderful The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song and Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree. Both books are infused with melancholic nostalgia in as much as modern country and hip hop no longer express the joy of emerging subcultures. They are staid institutions. And Lasky and Piskor explore that nostalgia by employing the grammar of vintage comics. Lasky borrows from early 20th-century comics strips. His stars achieve iconic status thanks to his careful, simple lines. The panels follow a clear linear trajectory, like the steady beat of a country song. Hip Hop Family Tree is a campy re-rendering of a 1980s de-saturated comic. The motive for each comic is the same, but like the subjects they depict, they belong to separate realms.
McCloud asks his readers to notice the ways the comics in his anthology talk to each other. They do talk to each other, but they spend more time talking to themselves. With the exception of the work of Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, not a single character from one comic here could find a home in another. Everyone owns the particularities of their sadness.
In Reinventing Comics, McCloud admitted that no one has written the War and Peace of comics. In the 14 years since, we may have come closer with Fun Home and Julio’s Day. The Japanese may have come even closer, but the truth is comics, at least American comics, don’t need a Tolstoy any more than country music or hip hop needs a Beethoven.
Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, the most widely read comic in this collection, could only have come from someone robbed of worldly ambitions. Her crudely-drawn webcomic describes the wreckage of mental illness, outwardly describing exactly how a depressive feels herself and the world around her. Her style is primitive and humorous and according to McCloud “rewire[s] a million ideas of what ‘good’ comics look like.” She’s writing postcards from the abyss and she’s giving her audience fleeting moments of comfort. And that should be enough. Question: Why does “Great Non-Fiction” about depression produce a William Styron, but “great” comics about depression produce an Allie Brosh? Why do we accept dark sentimentality from our comics but not from our novels?
The modern novel is made up of words printed in a uniform font, but the comic is made up of drawings, clearly the work of another human being, the closest thing our culture still has to handwritten letters. Reading a comic, like reading a novel, is a private experience, but the texture of the thin paper of a comic is far more powerful than that of the pages of a novel, thanks to the presence of the communicator’s human hand. Even a computer drawing that you read on a laptop is connected to an organic body, in the sense that you can acknowledge the presence of a human hand on a mouse or a digital pen. When you read a comic, you are accepting a direct message from one singular honest soul. Your hand touches theirs. That soul can be strange. That soul can be sick. And it can also be oh-so earnest…
The comic book emancipates adults from irony.