Flying the Standard: Part 2 - Achieving The Standard

Tue, November 28th, 2006 at 12:00am PST

Comic Books
Scott O. Brown, Guest Contributor

Welcome to part two! This time, I'm going to put forth two of our greatest contributors to the comics Canon. They are creators who consistently create works that strive for and achieve the Standard. Even at their worst, they deserve discussion. Will Eisner pushed comics into the forms in which they exist today, and Art Spiegelman so successfully achieved the Standard with Maus, that his book was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

In the same way that we could not discuss the Standard without establishing some ground rules, we can't discuss creators and the forms they use to tell comics stories without figuring out what those forms are. Just as film encompasses features, shorts, and animation, and as prose includes novels, short stories, and poems, comics has its own key forms. Some are far more common than others, and each has its own standard of quality.

We cannot compartmentalize our Canon by form, and I am not purporting that we apply rules of form to our Standard. These forms are our contexts, and allow us to include a variety of different works. The Standard works within them.

Caveat aside, there are four basic forms that comics stories tend to take1:

  1. The Comic Strip

    The comic strip is the most widely read form in America and tends to take on two forms: the gag strip and the serial strip. Comic strips have their own rich history, intricately tied to the development of other media, and mentioning the most well-known strips of recent history as Peanuts or Calvin & Hobbes isn't appropriate to isolating the Canon of this form. This is fodder for the future, because, frankly, I'm still hip deep in researching and discovering fantastic things about the form every day. For this series of essays, we'll keep our focus on the others. We'll discuss strips in depth later.

  2. Short Story

    Next in length is the short story. It ranges from a page to roughly forty-eight pages. We can apply the rules for the comparable prose form here. If it's meant to be read in one sitting, it's a short story. In America, their primary outlets are in serial-superhero comics or in the occasional, undersold anthology. Although wonderful voices do arise to greater prominence from time to time. I've seen it happen with Adrian Tomine's Optic Nerve and the works of Will Eisner.

  3. Graphic Novella/Novel

    The graphic novella is longer than the short story, allowing for a greater development of theme and character without the formal demands of longer works. A common length for the comics novella is sixty-four pages, though we can place its length at forty-eight to 120 pages. One-shots and short mini-series are the dominant format for this form. Will Eisner's The Dreamer and the works of Actus Tragicus are solid examples. For simplicity's sake, I will roll it into the next one on the list...

    The graphic novel is one of two very popular formats right now. It's a longer work with a greater depth of literary and artistic storytelling than the shorter ones. I'm willing to put the lower limit at 128 pages, as that's the average length the book trade tends to support, with the maximum length being the upper limit of what can be bound into a single volume. Their initial publication can be a serialized story, or it can be the whole graphic novel at once. Black Hole, Maus, Blankets and From Hell are perfect examples.

  4. Long Form Serial

    Finally, we have the Long Form Serial. This is a work of multiple volumes serialized in either single issues or larger books. It is a complex form, comparable to works like Dune or Lords of the Rings, with farther reaching thematic breadth The stories are too long and complex for an individual book, so they are expanded and woven within multiple volumes. The form was pioneered with Cerebus and Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing. And it is also the most popular format for Manga. Though it didn't come into its own until Neil Gaiman's Sandman.

So, skipping the great strip creators for now, I'm still left with an enormous number of comics to apply the Standard to as we begin cutting into the meat of our Canon. To wit, there are two creators we have to talk about first, Will Eisner and Art Spiegelman.

There are important works by these two creators that achieve the Standard and belong in our Canon. The point is to start arguing over them, not to give you a final word. All I ask is that you stick around long enough to see exactly what I'm talking about.

Will Eisner

Eisner is obviously one of the most prolific and influential cartoonists of the American comics medium. He is the cartoonist who broke new ground with The Spirit, and he coined the term "graphic novel" with the publication of his book, A Contract With God. While he didn't pioneer the strip or the long form serial, he did show us how to achieve the Standard through short stories, graphic novellas, and graphic novels.

I won't talk about The Spirit here. There's a creative development through that series that stands on its own. What I do want to talk about is his literary work in the latter part of his career. It is his most important work - a distillation of what he learned in his years on The Spirit and working for the military and in education.

Some people like to think of Eisner as our Shakespeare, but I like to think of him as our Hemingway, in style, not content. Where Hemingway honed his prose down to its most necessary components, Eisner honed his pen down to its essentials, tapping into visual stereotypes to create a shorthand for comics storytelling. Visual stereotyping is a deliberate and conscious effort on the part of Eisner, and it is one of the major component he puts forth in Graphic Storytelling. It is a hallmark of his style, and a perfect example of theory in action.

Let's apply the Standard to some well-known and thematically tied works of Eisner's and see what happens. We'll start with the "first" graphic novel, A Contract with God.

First, we isolate the form. A Contract with God is not a graphic novel. It's a collection of graphic novellas. Sure, the stories are loosely interrelated through their setting, but a unified setting alone does not make a novel. Each story's moral argument is different. Each story stands on its own and does not require the other in order to be understood. They are novellas, containing more depth than a short story, but without the additional literary baggage needed for a novel.

So, in order to give these works a proper examination, we need to break the collection apart and look at the individual stories.

Starting with the title story, "A Contract with God," Eisner tells us the tale of Frimme Hersh. Hersh feels that God violated their contract in taking his daughter's life. Hersh lead a good life, hoping that God would reward him. He finds earthly success when he turns his back on God and lives for profit, and falls dead when he tries to enter a new contract. It's a simple story, full of depth and multiple interpretations.

While there are several ways to interpret Hersh's moral need, he is a man who expects agreements to be honored for mutual benefit. What he doesn't learn (or perhaps he does in death, we don't know) is that in life, there are no guarantees.

Or, you can also interpret the story as being about a man who loses, then rediscovers faith in God, however, he is unable to resolve his earthly needs with the spiritual.

Or, it's about a man who thinks all of life is about bargaining, without realizing that he is attempting to bargain with something that may or may not exist, making his attempts futile.

And these interpretations aren't mutually exclusive. Eisner gives us a depth of character and theme in the scant fifty-seven pages of the story that can include all three interpretations to varying degrees. This is a degree of thematic depth that we rarely see in comics. Without hesitation, I can say this story meets the literary standard.

But what about the art? It is appropriate to the story; the style elicits images of New York in the early twentieth century. There's something in Eisner's style that evokes the time period, much like Al Hirschfeld's caricatures do, or the music of Gershwin. It's a visual cue that embodies the city during the Great Depression.

He draws Hersh in the opening as a simple man, donning the traditional garb of Hassidic Jews to show his piousness. But as the story goes on, Hersh changes, and is drawn in his profiteering years as a fat businessman in expensive suits and his nose in the air. These deliberate visual stereotypes advance the changes in plot and character immediately, communicating the difference between spiritual and earthly gain. Its deft and deliberate style and tight storytelling achieves our artistic standard.

In "The Street Singer," Eisner attempts to show the desperation of the Depression. Juxtaposing a failed stage singer against a poor street singer, Eisner explores the similarities and differences of their situations. The street singer sings to escape his plight and to make whatever extra buck he can. Diva Marta Maria hopes to escape by riding the street singer's talent. There's a desperation to both characters that ends with the street singer missing his opportunity.

In applying the Standard, the art succeeds in the same way it does for every story in this collection. But the story itself fails for a simple reason: it is thematically obvious, too "on the nose," lacking a depth of plot and character. There is nothing unique or challenging about the deliberate and obvious use of juxtaposition. Eisner's intent, as he mentions in the book's introduction, is to "immortalize [the street singer's] story." While he does try to capture it, he does so with literary stereotypes--the starving depression era artist, the fallen star, the beleaguered, abused wife. We can accept visual stereotypes in art, but character and literary stereotypes are too much of a shortcut to telling a story, and because of that, this work does not meet the Standard.

The dichotomy between character and visual stereotypes makes me want to pause for a moment. Why is it, as comics readers and critics, we are more willing to accept a visual stereotype and not a literary one? I believe it's the difference in communicating conceptual ideas versus immediate visual identification. Depth of character is worth getting to, it helps propel the story. Simple visuals allow immediate identification so we can start digging deep into the individuals.

We encounter the same literary stereotyping in "The Super." Like "The Street Singer," there is no subtlety, and if anything, it comes across as exploitative. The reversing of the role of victim and victimizer between the super and the little girl, feels forced to make a point. If you boil down the conflict, it's the landowner versus the (seemingly) defenseless child. While the moral argument is an interesting one - sometimes the perceived victim can be the true victimizer - it doesn't meet the Standard because it lacks the appropriate depth.

Compare "The Super" to "A Contract with God." As I mentioned above, Frimme Hersh's moral need is extremely complex and open to several interpretations. But for the Super, he's looking for an outlet to his isolation. There are no further interpretations to his actions, no gray area to hint at depth.

The characters lack subtlety. There is no further dimension to them than what I'm about to describe: The superintendent is a lonely old pervert with girly magazines lining his walls, a jar of hoarded money, and an unwholesome desire to see prepubescent girls naked. The girl is a conniving little girl who sees herself as her own resource and acts as a manipulator while hiding behind her perceived innocence.

With "The Super," Eisner's visual stereotyping, while normally acceptable, detracts from the story. For example, the consistently sinister look on the girl's face - she's all evil, all the time - reinforces the overt simplicity of the character. The visual cue, which should be a shortcut for immediate identification, becomes a crutch for the entire character. That's the fault of visual stereotyping. Without the additional literary depth, it hurts more than it helps.

Due to "The Super's" thematic obviousness and character stereotypes, it does not meet the Standard, even though it is included in a historically important book.

When we finally reach "Cookalein," Eisner is back on his game. The story wraps a series of events around a single summer at a cookalein, and explores the value of sex and social status during the depression. The theme is driven home when one of the main characters, Benny rapes Goldie when he discovers she doesn't come from a rich family. Without money, she has no value, and if she has no value, she is dehumanized in his made and made an object for rape. This also happens in a less aggressive form with Maralyn seduces the boy, Willie. To her, the act of sex has no value, making Willie nothing more than a toy to her. When Maralyn's husband finds her and has sex with her in front of the boy, it further drives home his devaluation.

More than the nicely balanced theme, Eisner puts the setting to use in a masterful way. Interweaving the tales within a specific setting - in this case, a cookalein - imbues a life into the setting that otherwise wouldn't exist, almost making it a character in its own right. This technique foreshadows the narrative style of Dropsie Avenue. With the same application of the Standard to the art as the other stories, "Cookalein" resoundingly meets the Standard.

As for historically, the entirety of the collection is considered the first book marketed as a "graphic novel" (even though it isn't). We should pay attention for that reason alone.

But the book in its entirety does not achieve the Standard. With only two of the four stories meeting the literary standard, I reluctantly include the book in our Canon due to its overarching historical importance and the almost consistently successful artistic style of the books.

But we aren't going to stop there. Time to take a breather. Check back tomorrow as we continue the discussion of Eisner's work and move on to Maus.

Today's book:
Eisner, Will. The Contract with God Trilogy. W. W. Norton. ISBN: 0393061051

As before, thanks to Paul Hanna, for applying the editorial standard and helping me to give my arguments added depth.

Scott O. Brown is a comics writer, editor, and publisher. He lurks underground consuming toxic levels of caffeine and information. You can find him online at http://sobstories.blogspot.com/.

Footnotes:
1 I'm sure there are a couple of you out there wondering why I haven't mentioned mini-comics. So many people tackle this form, especially in their formative years or for deeply personal work, I cannot ignore its existence. While mini-comics appear on the surface to be a variation on the presentation format of a short story, I believe mini-comics have their own set of rules. My personal experience in reading hundreds of them over the years is that it's a form still curled in the fetal position, and isn't ready for the kind of discussion we're having here...yet. The more dominant forms, and their masters, by volume alone, need to be handled first.

 
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