Bang! Pow! Blah Blah Blah Maus!

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.

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9 Responses to Bang! Pow! Blah Blah Blah Maus!

  1. Lanf says:

    I submit the following:
    Artesia by Mark Smylie. Currently 3 graphic novels, it’s set in Daradja, a medieval kingdom. The story is intriguing and the art is fantastic.

    Strangers in Paradise by Terry Moore. No magic, no superheroes. Just a couple of gals and a guy with interesting lives. A very good read.

    Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki. My favorite manga. I think Dave’s blogged about it before so I need not say too much. But really great stuff!

  2. Kurt says:

    Carry on preacher, my choir seat is comfortable. Still, it is a shame that even articles about comics seem so shallow. Surely there are many well read reporters and journalists out there that already read comics? How about a mention that Sandman issue #50 (as I recall) won an award as a short-story before the awarders realized that it was a comic. No love in this country for an absolutely fantastic medium. Thanks a million Comic Book Authority!

  3. Brian says:

    I am not a comics reader or fan, yet I do not taunt or think less of comics fans. You (Dave) seem to assume at some level, that those who don’t like comics also make fun of comic readers, which just ain’t true. I had a few inherited comics as a kid (one of which was a Superman #2, which to my horror, my mom threw away with the other comics, ugh!), but never got into them much. I gravitated to sci-fi during the days of Space: 1999, and by reading sci-fi books, and short-story anthologies. A matter of taste.

    I still prefer books over comics, aka graphic novels, simply because I personally prefer the tabula rasa a book offers. It lets me conjur my owns details through imagination, and I enjoy the process regardless of how much I enjoy the book. I do also rather enjoy great artwork, as I am a fan of many pieces of artwork for Magic. It’s just that I prefer to not have artwork attached to a story. And I simply do not enjoy the superhero stuff at all.

    I just never hooked up with a comic where the story is compelling. Feel free to suggest one, if there is a one (besides your aforementioned Maus) to get me interested in comics. I can expand my horizons. Just pointing out that not all people who are not interested in comics deride comic readers or the materials. To me, it’s a matter of media prefs.

  4. roomtemp says:

    “Alec,” by Eddie Campbell, is astonishingly good. And don’t forget the other half of Los Bros, Jaime. His “Locas” is even more fun than Gilbert’s “Palomar” and more immediately accessible and engaging. Kyle Baker’s original graphic novels are urbane, witty, and sharply drawn as well.

  5. Nigel says:

    Well done Legomancer. I’m no expert but let’s hear it for Leauge of Extraordinary Gentlemen (cough, splutter-sorry, still trying to get the bad taste of the movie out of my mouth)and 2000 AD (cough, splutter-sorry it’s that Stalone Judge Dredd movie taste again) but Movies, oh that’s an embraced medium. No one abuses you for going to see Spiderman, but read the comic and you’re some mal-adjusted freak.

  6. Dave says:

    Please keep in mind that I’m not talking about the attitude of the general public towards comics. That’s a can of worms for another day. I’m specifically referring to news articles that set out to demonstrate to non comics readers that comics aren’t just Superman and Spider-Man but seem content to (a) still deride the medium they’re supposedly advocating and (b) list only the same two or three examples of quality material.

  7. David Thiel says:

    Umm, Brian, I could be mistaken, but I think Dave made about a dozen suggestions in his article. Haven’t read any of them myself, but then I actually do prefer my comics to be about superheroes. In general, anything by Alan Moore is well worth your time.

  8. Shawn Fumo says:

    It actually reminds me of the state of anime coverage some years ago. It used to be that any recommendation of anime was all about Akira. That actually soured me on the movie for a long time because I felt like so many people must have been turned off of anime by trying to watch this confusing and very very violent movie, held up to be the pinnacle of animation from Japan. I think it is an interesting movie and has a high level of craft to the animation itself, but it certainly isn’t for most people. Ghost in the Shell would get mentioned at times also and while that’s a bit better for a bigger variety of viewers, it is still dark, violent, and tech-oriented.

    Thank goodness things like Miyazaki’s movies now get more coverage. You still see some lingering “anime isn’t just violent porn” around, but thankfully it seems to have shifted for the most part. I do think I’ve seen some better comic articles lately, but still a long ways to go.

    Actually, whenever I see hobbies I’m familiar with presented in the press, it tends to make me question the press..heh. Sometimes you get some gems, but so many instances of misinformation, it can be scary at times.

  9. Bruce Baugh says:

    Antony Johnston has written a bunch of fun self-contained graphic novels illustrated by various artists, published by Oni Press. I am particularly fond of Julius, which adapts Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar to modern-day London gangsters. Julius himself speaks Shakespeare’s dialogue; others mostly talk contemporary English. Closer combines gothic and mad-scientist riffs for a classic tale of research into things we were not meant to know and tangled family legacy. Spooked is a great slice-of-life tale about an unwilling medium and how she deals with the ghosts who sometimes reside in her head.

    Guy Davis has done some neat work over the years. Honour Among Punks reprints his early series Baker Street in one convenient volume, ten issues or so of crime fiction in an alternate London, where World War II didn’t happen and America is a fundamentalist backwater. (Hmm.) The mainc haracters are an ex-cop who does her best to keep the punk scene safe and the American medical student who rooms with her. The first storyline is a good whodunit, the second an excellent very dark inquiry into twisted motives and the protective instinct gone badly awry. And there’s the ongoing story of the Marquis, inquisitor in a sort of fantasy Versailles who finds that being the only one who can see demons in their true form is, um, not so great sometimes. Volume so far include The Marquis: Danse Macabre, The Marquis: Hell’s Courtesan, and The Marquis: A Sin of One. Davis’ work is not to everyone’s taste, but if you like what you see at his website, then the rest is worth checking out.

    I will have tow rite up a plug for Red Star later; gotta fun.