October 2003

Karin L. Kross

comicbookslut

An Open Letter

A brief prologue

First, a brief explanation of my own position may be in order -- unlike Bookslut's other columnists, it didn't occur to me to lay out my basic agenda in my first column. It's fairly simple: I write my column and comics reviews on the theory that the average Bookslut reader (or at least my conception of that beast) is not averse to the comics form, but may not be all that familiar with it. There are a lot of excellent web sites for aficionados of the form; Comic Book Resources and Sequential Tart are but two that come to mind. I assume that you, reader, have at least heard the names of some of the best writers and artists, and are interested in possibly reading more.

What's always been key to my approach, however, is the assumption that comics are not a genre -- they are a form which may be used to deliver stories of all kinds. As readers of my own blog probably know, I get very testy when comics are written off as being "for kids," largely because they have pictures and were, up until the last couple of decades, primarily marketed to and read by children. It makes me especially testy when people try to ban certain comics or prosecute people for selling them strictly on the grounds that "comics are for kids."

That being said, you may have noticed a spike in comics coverage in the "mainstream" media, due in no small part to the critical success of American Splendor and the DC/Time-Warner push of Neil Gaiman's return to the comics form, Endless Nights. And it's exactly this coverage which inspires the following open letter; a letter which specifically is a reaction to certain statements in Salon, the New York Times, and the New York Review of Books.

What follows is my attempt to articulate certain ideas about comics reviews, and in doing so, to stop torturing my friends and acquaintances with lengthy, only mostly coherent rants on the subject.

The letter

To the book critics of the world, greetings.

I've noticed lately that you've been writing a lot about comic books, or graphic novels, if you prefer that term. This is great. For those of us who have been boosting comics for years, it's intensely gratifying to see them getting recognition outside of comics shops and industry trade publications. It's fabulous to see mainstream recognition for the geniuses who we comics aficionados have known about for years.

However, in these recent reviews, I've noticed a disturbing trend, all the more disturbing because it's not new.

One is hard-pressed to find a mainstream (by which I mean not alternative press, and not comics industry) comics review that doesn't feel duty-bound to point out that comics are generally thought of as a juvenile form, or one that is beneath the notice of Serious Readers.

For example, Laura Miller writes in Salon:

But, to be blunt, I'm not someone who cares much about comics. Despite having read and admired works by Art Spiegelman, Los Bros Hernandez, Alan Moore, Chester Brown, Chris Ware and others, I still belong to that tribe of readers who'll pick a thousand words over a picture any day.

Dana Jennings in the New York Times:

Vertigo represents the graphic novel of ideas, if such a thing can exist: comics aimed at an older, broader audience. With nary a superhero in sight, Vertigo's books range from up-to-date fairy tales ("Fables"), to the dystopian ("Transmetropolitan"), to grit-in-your-mouth crime fiction ("100 Bullets").

And finally, David Hadju in the New York Review of Books:

How could the comic book, whose very name is a pejorative synonym for the outrageously fantastical, do any justice to the real world? Can a medium so good at depicting the overblown and the infantile really pare itself down and grow up?

Note that these extracts are all taken from very positive reviews and articles. These writers liked the material that they were writing about. But in each case, the bad reputation of the comics form is brought up again, ostensibly with the intent of demolishing it by demonstrating that there really are good comics out there. This sort of thing has been going on since Art Spiegelman won the Pulitzer for Maus. (Which, mind you, was 11 years ago.)

To these critics, and to all others who are listening, I have one thing to say.

Stop it.

Don't stop reviewing comics, by all means, please. Review them. The good ones, and maybe even the bad ones -- after all, you review bad books, right? But please, please, I beg you, stop it already with the condescending asides like these here. They do not help. They only reinforce the idea that the comics form as a whole is unworthy of serious consideration.

To be sure, there are bad and juvenile comics out there. But there are bad and juvenile books. Would you tar a Yann Martel with the same brush as a John Grisham? Of course you wouldn't. Then stop lumping the Neil Gaimans and Alan Moores of the world with the silver-foil Spider-Man Collectors' Editions that Marvel churned out in the 1990s. The comics form has as wide a range as the novel. So when you review your comics, do so with the levelhandedness that you would use with a novel.

Thank you.

Karin Kross, Comicbookslut