Sunday, December 16, 2007

Do Comics Get a Pass?

As we've established in the past, The Trail is a bit of a comics nerd, but quit that biz as a cost saving measure when he moved to Kingston last year. Working at the bookstore now, I get caught up on a number of the quote-unquote "big" releases when they come out, because I can read them on my breaks, notably Adrian Tomine's Shortcomings and Alex Robinson's Tricked.

Tomine's piece was fine for what it was, even if I found none of the characters likable [which I suspect was the point] and he's a skilled artist, but I don't need to spend $25 on something I can read in my half hour lunch break. No harm no foul.

Robinson's book made me actually angry, for a few reasons, not the least of which was the hype that surrounded it. At the turn of the century Robinson put out Box Office Poison, a critically acclaimed longform comic about a group of friends getting their shit together in New York. Yawnsville, right? But Robinson actually told a decent story, which was more than partly a love letter to what he thought comics should be, something I supported and agreed with. Times have changed.

You know what I can't stand in books? References to fake music. I've never found any piece of literature that effectively described music that didn't already exist. It's what ruined Jonathan Lethem's novel You Don't Love Me Yet [a book I desperately wanted to like] and it's what ultimately destroys my care factor for Tricked, his much hyped follow up to BOP. No mistakes, Robinson can tell a great story, but he has this weakness for creating multiple narratives that collide at the end, which always means that some narratives work better than others. Phoebe and her father was great, Caprice's bad choices in love was meh, and Ray's musical block and his obsessed fan was puke. I don't want to read 47 pages of some psycho talking to me about how the second album from some band who never existed is better than the lead singer's current output. Do not care, can't relate. And since Ray's story is the one that drives home the narrative's conflict, this meaningless chatter is the one I have to spend time with, when I'd rather read more about Phoebe and her family. And the autograph forger? Why was he even there? He bides his time in the weakest story so he can jump in front of a bullet at the end. Lame.

As I was setting the book back on the shelf the other day, I was reading the plaudits on the back cover, hailing Robinson's genius and calling the book one of the best of that year. Really? And I remembered similar feelings I had in 2004, when I bought a book called Blankets by Craig Thompson. Blankets was hailed far and wide as a work of genius and the doorstop of a book shot Thompson into the elite class of graphic novelists. And I was utterly underwhelmed, because after I finished the book one lazy Sunday afternoon I was left with the feeling that it was a story I had heard before. Just another memoirish book about young love and finding some universal truth as you enter adulthood. Zzzz.

After a lot of thought, I realized the bulk of the praise for Blankets, indeed the bulk of the praise for Tricked, had more to do with the medium that it was told in. Most readers seemed willing to ignore whatever weaknesses or cliches were in the story in favour of praising the art and panel composition. In Tricked, all we have is another ensemble piece of a bunch of people in New York having conversations the likes of which we've been seeing in film for the last 20 years. But Robinson drew, inked and lettered the book himself, so the story gets looked at with a fresh eye.

But should it? If a familiar, indeed cliched story gets told in a different medium, should those weak, hackneyed narrative devices be ignored? Do comics get a pass?

This is by no means a total indictment of 'alt-comics' [anything not in tights]. I read a good portion of Chris Ware's latest edition of Acme Novelty Library and it was one of the best things I've read this year. But it told a new story! Imagine that. Is that really so much to ask?


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