Mike Sterling, who put the “Mike” in “comikes blogger”, posted a link the other day to this article. It starts off familiarly, obeying the Congressional Act that requires to start every newspaper article about comics with the standard disclaimer that even though probably you and certainly I always thought comics are what “dorky, awkward boys read in their musty basements on Friday night when they get can’t a date,” there are really some good ones out there! Well, a couple. One or two. Okay, Maus.
Now, I’m not here to bust on Art Spiegelman’s Maus. I couldn’t. Maus deserves every inch of the praise it gets. It truly is not only a stellar example of the medium but of literature, period. There’s a reason every article seeking to legitimize comics mentions it, though its Pulitzer Prize and Holocaust topic make it completely irresistible as well. Winning a big prize makes it kind of legitimate (though if it was truly legitimate, there’d be a movie based on it). And what could be more Serious and Grown-Up than the Holocaust? So Maus stands high as an example of what the medium can do when it’s not too busy killing superheroes, and it’s no surprise that it’s a popular demonstration of this. A little too popular, though.
Maus in its common form consists of two volumes. Volume one came out in 1986, and volume two followed in 1991. In 1992 the entire work was awarded a special award by the Pulitzer Prize Board. It’s the only comic (sorry, graphic novel) to receive a Pulitzer, apart from the Wildstorm Swimsuit Special, which won one in 1995. (Not really.) In the 90 or so years of the Pulitzer Prizes, only one comic has been fit to mention. And journalists continue this tradition. Mentioning Maus is a standard part of any article on serious comics, and oftentimes it’s the only title mentioned.
There are a few others that pop up from time to time. Watchmen sometimes gets a nod, as does The Dark Knight Returns, but they’re usually listed as examples of how superheroes have “grown up” and are now for adults. In other words, if comics are the dorky kid sitting in his basement, these two titles are presented as that kid putting on a suit and going to Aunt Myrna’s funeral. Still just as much a dork, but presentable to the grown-ups. (As an aside, it’s interesting to me that comics need to “grow up” before they’ll be acceptable to people who watch, say, “The King of Queens” on a regular basis.)
The linked article doesn’t play the Watchmen card, but DKR is there. The other actual titles mentioned are Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor (mentioned more as a movie), and, uhh, “The Smartest Kid on Earth by Jimmy Corrigan”. (The actual book is Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth and it’s by Chris Ware.) That’s it. In an article entitled “Not So ‘Comic’ Books'” which is ostensible about comic books, only three titles beyond the obligatory Maus get mentioned, one of which is totally screwed up. The Aqua Teen Hunger Force, a cartoon, get more space than the comic books of the title. I should also point out that this: “It also includes Maus by Art Spiegelman which won a Pulitzer Prize.” is the extent of the mention of Maus. Fulfills the requirements of the law, but doesn’t waste time actually describing the work.
These articles are maddening. Keep in mind this is a positive article. It supposedly is trying to get people to look into comics. And yet, could the compliments be more backhanded? Could the praise be more faint? The OMR (Obligatory Maus Reference) is infuriating because while it seeks to illustrate the strides comics have made, it also insinuates that the total number of those strides has been one. In 1992, comics did something good. And that’s it. Nothing before or since. The online journal, Bookslut, wrote an exasperated Open Letter regarding this frustrating trend, where reviewers feel they first must (a) recognize that most people think comics are stupid, (b) say “But wait wait wait! Here’s some that aren’t!”. To this I add (c) and then go on to list the exact same two or three titles as examples. Once you have Maus, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight Returns on your shelf, you’re apparently done.
If you don’t read comics and would like to see what the medium has to offer besides superheroes (Watchmen and Dark Knight are books which feature, among other things, superheroes) there are scads of things to try out. Some of them do get mentioned in these articles. There’s American Splendor by Harvey Pekar (slice-of-life autobiography written by a guy with an incredibly sharp eye for detail and drawn by some of the greatest underground artists), Palomar by Gilbert Hernandez (magical-realism stories of a fictional Central American town and its fully-defined inhabitants), Blankets by Craig Thompson (a coming-of-age story involving love and belief), Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse (explores homosexuality and racism in postwar America), Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware (a crushingly heartbreaking story of a man trying to find even the slightest hint of love), V for Vendetta by Alan Moore (an incredibly timely look at how one man’s “terrorist” is another man’s “freedom fighter”), Bone by Jeff Smith (a charming all-ages fantasy), The Death Ray (a/k/a “Eightball #23”) by Dan Clowes (looks like superheroes on the surface, but is actually about small people with big power), just about anything by Joe Sacco, but especially Safe Area Gorazde (an on-the-ground account of the war in Bosnia by a comics journalist), and man, that’s just off the top of my head. I invite others to contribute suggestions of other modern classics in the comments.
The world of quality comics doesn’t start and end with Maus. It’s a fantastic work, yes, and worth reading, but there’s so much more. Denying yourself this entire medium is like someone else saying they don’t watch any movies, read any fiction, listen to any music, because really, isn’t that stuff just for kids and how serious can it possibly be? By all means let Maus be an entry point into this medium, but don’t let it be only place you visit.