December 12, 2007
Posted by: Mark Siegel
Categories: :01 Stop: Watch


most of the history of American comics, storytellers have had to structure
their tales in episodic chunks of narrative, their plotlines unfolding in
serialized chapters from month to month. This was due to the nature of magazine publishing and the requirements
of the marketplace, conditions which inadvertently influenced the medium in
significant ways. As with pulp sci-fi or
detective periodicals such as Astounding Stories or Detective Fiction,
publishers and the reading audience alike tended to favor brief, cliffhanging
narratives full of colorful, often lurid characters. Stories in the comics resembled soap operas
or radio plays more than novels, a condition we still see in most mainstream superhero
comics being published today. These
sorts of episodic stories are not really supposed to end, like Pachelbel’s
Canon or The Beatles’ Hey Jude, they’re designed to go on forever and

is some debate about which book actually qualifies as the first true graphic
novel. Will Eisner’s A Contract With God
is often sited, a book that’s a collection of short stories about normal people living in a
New York tenement building. These
beautifully drawn stories are written with a subtle, literary flavor which
still resonates today. This is probably
the true mark of literary quality — if a work can seem living and vital every
time you re-read (or in the case of comics, every time you re-view). If that work can somehow continually enrich
the person reading it again and again at different points along the walk of
life, it becomes a priceless thing, like an old and continually surprising
friend. For the decades preceding
Eisner’s attempts, "comics" as a storytelling medium relied on either
the daily newspaper pages or the monthly comic book format for its stage. Whether in the hands of a great artist or a
tired hack, the stapled newsprint pamphlet was the staple of comics
storytelling. An artist like Milton
Caniff could develop long and rather complex adult-oriented storylines in his
strip Terry and the Pirates, and his work — along with Windsor McCay’s Little
Nemo In Slumberland
and a few others — is still held as a high water mark in
20th century cartooning. In Europe and Asia, there were longer narratives, and
some stories (such as Cendres and Pellos’ Futuropolis or Osamu Tezuka’s Adolph) resembled prose literature in
their tone and content, however these were largely unknown outside of their
home countries but to a handful of world travelers and professional artists
for years and years. It has really only
been for about a single generation — maybe since the mid 1980s — that the long
format "graphic novel" has been a viable storytelling vehicle for
people who want to tell stories in the comics medium, and only for that same
amount of time American readers have had wider and wider access to the entire
body of what I call "world comics"– graphic stories from around the
globe. Today’s young reader has access
to virtually the entire body of comics history, stretching from Japan to Europe
to the cave-spelunking past of America’s many venerable traditions.

facet of the comics medium is important and deserves its own special
consideration, but it’s the writing in comics I’m thinking about right
now. I often wonder why we don’t see
more literary quality in the comics being published today, why we don’t have a
John Steinbeck or Robert Penn-Warren in our medium, authors who can unfold a
filigreed theme across an extended storyline and touch on that ineffable shade
we call "the human condition." Where are our Sam Hamiltons, our Willie Starks, our Jack Burdens, our
Cal Trasks? It may simply be that good
writing is rare. It is also entirely possible that most comics creators are
simply unconcerned with developing literary themes in their work, favoring
instead sweeping epics of good versus evil, populating their paper worlds with colorfully costumed heroes and villans
invested with very little psychological complexity or self-awareness. It may be that most people who are attracted
to the medium want very little more out of life than to draw pretty pictures,
tell exciting, splashy stories, and get paid for it. There is certainly nothing wrong with those interests
(I wholeheartedly share them myself), but every time I finish what Hemingway
might have called "a damn good book," I can’t help feeling there is
always a need for more and better writing in the comics. When it comes to comics, the equivalent of a
fine literary writer would have to be someone (or someones) with the implicit
vision of a poet, who sees and feels life and knows how to code it into visual
storytelling through comics’ special melange of prose/dialogue and persuasive
drawing. It seems to me a poorly drawn
but well written story is far better than a well drawn, poorly written
one. When we’re lucky, as in the case of
Gipi’s Notes For A War Story, we have both together, at once. That should be our ideal, then. More stories with better art and better
writing, always and forever more. Whether it’s a serious meditation on the private life of a family or a
madcap ruckus with kooky talking animals, all I care is that it’s a comic story
which is done well and it has lasting impact — that’s the literary quality I
want to see in a comic.

my upcoming projects Battling Boy and Total THB, I’ve been really thinking
about the freedom made possible by the extended graphic novel format. It is significant to note that we’ve reached
a point in the history of comics where an author can more-or-less work
completely outside of the monthly serialized periodical format, with its
inherent page strictures and narrative conformities. Nobody said it was easy or could come without
paying your dues, but you can do it all the same. So long as you have something valuable to say
and the talent to put it on paper, you can do it. It is no longer necessary to constantly
invent some new cliffhanger every 24 to 32 pages to keep the readers coming
back month after month, it is no longer necessary to come up with endlessly
hyperbolic cover designs to entice new readers, no longer necessary to truncate
extended scenes of character development for lack of space on the page. These
are all common characteristics of the monthly comic book publishing format
which many of us struggle with all the time. Now, thanks to the vigorous interest in manga on the part of new readers
and the on-going assault comics is making on the whole of contemporary pop
culture, cartoonists are able to approach new comics in the same way authors
like Tom Wolfe or Kurt Vonnegut would’ve approached their latest novel. Readers crave good stories, and probably
beyond that, deeper meaning. There seems
to be a real psychological need for art — for all the arts. Art offers us a reflection of interior
ourselves, through the eyes and hands and words of another. Through meaningful art, we consider ourselves
and our very condition of being human, and in the process, gain more insight
into our true natures as living, sensing creatures living on this planet of
ours which we call Earth. Comics has
stepped out of the wide shadows of film and illustration, and is now invited to
stand on its own, an infant medium full of potential and power. We are being invited to share our stories on
a world stage, however long or short our stories might be. We’ve got a lot of work to do, let’s show
them what we’ve got.


12 Comments on “ From the Drawing Board of Paul Pope ”

  • Johnny Bacardi | December 13th, 2007 12:04 pm

    I often wonder why we don’t see more literary quality in the comics being published today, why we don’t have a John Steinbeck or Robert Penn-Warren in our medium, authors who can unfold a filagreed theme across an extended storyline and touch on that ineffable shade we call “the human condition.”
    Wouldn’t the Bros. Hernandez, especially Gilbert, be an example of such a creator(s)? But I can’t think of anybody else offhand…

  • joncormier | December 13th, 2007 12:42 pm

    I think we should keep one eye on Jeff Lemire for this literary quality. His approach to both the narrative and presentation was a watershed moment for me in recognizing how comics can be seen as literature.

  • Kevin Johns | December 13th, 2007 12:43 pm

    I think you could throw Craig Thompson in there with the Bros.

  • mark siegel | December 13th, 2007 12:55 pm

    From an editor’s standpoint, I think it’s true the conditions are ripe now at many levels–creative, commercial and cultural–for new breakthroughs in the form. I think editors can play a part in what they foster and coach, or not. Between the world wars, Maxwell Perkins not only found Hemingway and Fitzgerald but it seems, believed in their promise more than they even did. There are other, near legendary editors, Ursula Nordstrom, who was a midwife to the great American children’s book, and then Sonny Mehta, Victoria Wilson and others working today. I feel like the times we’re in, as Paul posits here, demand that I look to some of these inspirations in doing what I’m trying to do, on this side of things.

  • Justin Sherrill | December 13th, 2007 1:26 pm

    Eddie Campbell would be another good one, for detailing the human condition.

  • BradyDale | December 13th, 2007 1:34 pm

    Such a great question.
    As a person who primarily writes but sometimes draws comics… I am always struck by how darn long it takes. Isn’t that somehow part of it?
    I see this in two ways.
    1) You can do the punchy, big theme, good versus evil stories in shorter, more exciting chunks. The long, subtle story would take a long time and you wouldn’t get that thrill when you finish every page (and each one is 8 hours worth of work, even for a speedy artist, right?)
    2) Specialization… in my observation, the most literary work always comes from writer-artists in the independent or small press scene, right? Maybe it’s the case that a person who’s primarily an artist just isn’t usually literary enough to come up with that stuff (don’t kill me! I’m just thinking aloud). That to really get to that level, you’d need someone who’s primarily a writer to craft the thing,
    but no artist in the indy scene wants to wed himself to someone else for so darn long… since writing and drawing is such an uneven spread of work. You know?

  • BradyDale | December 13th, 2007 1:35 pm

    P.S. How pumped am I that when Paul Pope brainstorms for great characters he picks two that I would have called out first as well? Stark and Burden, from my all time favorite book, ALL THE KING’S MEN. Pretty pumped.

  • Salgood Sam | March 24th, 2008 4:37 am

    Great post! Sounds exciting Paul! I’ve been thinking a lot about the same thing for the last few years, trying things, watching others playing with it too, look forward to see what’s been on your mind!

  • Salgood Sam | March 24th, 2008 5:11 am

    @Brady Dale : I think for me the thing has been to see that convention based ‘hit’ or reward approach to the narrative itself is often the problem. Patience is the thing in the end, that’s where I put my money, all leads from there.
    The story is there to be told, not make you feel good about telling it.
    Or the reader about reading it. Treats are cheep trix. Truly engage them, and you can beat them silly and still they will thank you.
    A literary story can contain a great range of genre conventions and different tempos, but it’s more of a long waltz than the robot, a running conversation between old friends, at least half only ever implied but never stated. You can add some hooks to it but without that hart it will be a pretender.
    Whoever the creator is if they understand that I think they will get it. But yes it takes so long and that is a substantial obstacle, you have to put time aside to do it some I think.
    Anything worthwhile…
    good thing i lover her so much.

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  • ignasi morato | November 14th, 2009 3:39 pm

  • seth | August 5th, 2010 11:56 pm

    its amazing to me how americans cant fathom that the may not be the first or the best at anything…
    of course the first graphic novel would have to be by an american…

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