Come In Alone: Issue #2

Fri, December 10th, 1999 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Warren Ellis, Columnist

We all enter comics on our own. Moving into the fictional world of a graphic novel is not a group pursuit. It is the act of one reader, with one copy of one comic. We all come in alone.

Comics are the mass medium we go into on our own. We don't experience it in company, the way we do film, TV, or often music. You don't gather twelve of your friends around a comic, nor does your family huddle around it together in the evenings. And you normally can't dance to one, nor can you attempt to have sex in the toilets next door to one. Well, actually, that's not true. But you see my point. Comics aren't a group experience.

"Comics are the mass medium we go into on our own."

And you don't experience them in the context of a cultural mainstream, either. When you pick up a novel, you know that many other people are doing it too, or have done. You've seen the reviews in the newspapers and other culture magazines. You're experiencing it in the context of a culture simultaneously experiencing it and conjuring general conversation about it. Of course, you also have the option of ignoring that conversation and entering the work "cleanly." But, hell, that's one more option than you get with comics. There is not the public exchange of thoughts and commentary that we find with art -- or, at least, that we find with art in Britain. As I understand it, the American exchange of thoughts about art begins and ends with lawsuits, these days. No-one wants to talk about the work, and very few people want to talk to us, the creators of the work (if we go anywhere other than the primarily Anglophone countries, of course, everything changes. But that's a whole other piece, that I might write next year if I go travelling in Scandinavia again -- the part of the world that cartoonist and ex-nuclear physicist Bud Grace once described to me as "Comics Heaven."). As a marginalised medium, we're in a far different condition: I create for you a world that you enter into as a solitary reader of a form cut off from the cultural conversation. You come in alone.

I can't pick up a newspaper and read about a new graphic novel or serial release. This pisses me off. I can't get anything on TV about them either. I believe there was once a TV show about comics broadcast by America's Sci-Fi Channel. The presenter was pointed out to me at San Diego 1997. He appeared to be a foetus. I have no idea if it's still broadcast, since Sci-Fi Channel Europe appears to be under no obligation to screen the parent channel's content. Or anything else other than interminable bloody SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN marathons. We did get a few editions of a British attempt at same, called COMICANA, which was just embarrassingly bad and evaporated as soon as it arrived, to the sadness of no-one human. But, you know, fair enough. It's difficult to find decent television about books, too.

Okay, yes, here in Britain the Guardian newspaper usually covers the new PREACHER collection and the latest Gaiman, but that is, by and large, the sum total of it. Which is wrong. If I have to be subjected to reviews of poetry books with lower print runs than, God, I don't know, the semi-autobiographical THE LONELY DEATH OF GOT NO LEGS BOY by Speech Impediment And Skin Aberration Press out of Dogshit, Nebraska... then, hell, why not devote some space to an artform that, in cold commercial terms, puts more bums on seats?

And it does, don't get me wrong. MAUS became a media-important work here because, make no mistake, it sold. I mean, I don't want to downplay the importance of the piece, but a graphic novel won't get all the ink MAUS got just because it's good. It was treated here as the first novel by a new author, and by those lights it sold very well indeed. One of the premier creators of graphic novels here in England is a man almost unheard-of in the States, a man called Raymond Briggs. He, as they say, moves units. Unsurprisingly, a new Raymond Briggs gets serious coverage in the literary pages, television, radio and any other damn thing. Which is great. But note; he either produces work specifically for children, or work specifically for adults. He works outside genres, in what, in the world of literature, is called the "mainstream". And he is published by respected book publishers.

Maus"MAUS became a media-important work here because, make no mistake, it sold."

Also of interest; a popular British newspaper cartoonist of the 80's, Posy Simmonds, made a comeback in 1999 with a new graphic novel, GEMMA BOVERY. It was serialised, at the rate of a page a day, by the Guardian. It had an unusual page size, it fused comics with extensive typeset prose sections, but make no mistake; it was a graphic novel. It was collected into book form within weeks of the conclusion of its serialisation. It's very good, though I'm not sure how well it'll travel -- a doomed romance and a satirical idyll, its games with Madame Bovary are transparent to all who have read the novel, but its skewering of a certain irreal piece of the English middle class and its artless colonial tendencies in Provence may be somewhat more opaque to the reader living outside the Kingdom. If you're interested in comics, check it out anyway, for Simmonds' perfect pacing and fine fusion of prose with squential art narrative sequences. GEMMA BOVERY did indeed become part of the cultural conversation for its time, and I got a sense that the few people in the press who have vocally championed the art of comics greeted it with relief. Finally; something they could recommend.

Because, you see, when MAUS met with its unequivocally glorious critical reception, people were casting around to find something else to show the new readers of comics, who just had discovered graphic narrative and were favourably disposed to try some more. This was, what, 1987? What did we have to offer the "mainstream" reader that year, aside from MAUS? THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS, perhaps? Genre work. WATCHMEN, by 1987? It transcended its genre, but, still, it was genre work. What else did we have to offer up? There were very few HEARTBREAK SOUPs and an awful lot of THE INCREDIBLE HULK VS THE LIVING TURDSCAPE OF ZOGG -- A MARVEL GRAPHIC NOVELs that were all of forty-eight sodding pages long. Which is why we're in the ridiculous position of people saying "I don't like comics", which is the same as saying you don't like music, or you don't like cinema, or books. When people do step inside here, we too often have nothing worth showing them.

We come in alone because, by and large, no-one else gives a toss.

(This may only be because I have the 'flu, but THE LONELY DEATH OF GOT NO LEGS BOY is looking more and more like a viable title.)

I can be contacted by email about this column at warren@comicbookresources.com. My website, currently undergoing an update, is http://www.warrenellis.com. A COME IN ALONE message board has been set up here.

INSTRUCTIONS: Read Children Of Chaos by Douglas Rushkoff (1997), listen to The Contino Sessions by Death In Vegas (1999), and hit the official Dogme 95 website at http://www.dogme95.dk/. Today's recommended graphic novel is GRENDEL: DEVIL TALES by Matt Wagner (Dark Horse, 1999). Now begone.

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