There is something sadly disingenuous about Adam B. Kushner’s recent Newsweek review of the graphic novel, A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld. The article offers tough criticism of the comic, which may be warranted (although here’s a more thoughtful piece that offers a different assessment) but then goes on to give the stank eye to all recent non-fiction graphic novels and nearly dismisses the quality of the medium as a whole.
Oh, the generalizations! Kushner characterizes the use of tragedy and other historical disasters as a “cheat” that distinguishes “the best graphic novels,” rather than as a feature of the comics that get the most attention from book editors at mainstream publications like Newsweek. Comics like Maus get a pass although it also “cheats,” while American Splendor earns some praise, but suffers because its central character doesn’t suffer enough. (I guess this doesn’t count.)
And then there are the wincing assumptions of Kushner’s main concern: “Is it any wonder, then, that none of the form’s triumphs are about everyday life? There is no Updike of the graphic novel.” So many apples and oranges being compared here that it reads like a fruit smoothie. Gah! No wonder this guy is so bitter!
We are the ones who are cheated when the mainstream press and their legitimizing muscle beat up on comics in this manner. As soon as a graphic novel becomes popular, wins an award, or acquires a following beyond its normal readership, the opinion pieces surface like schoolyard bullies. Cynical reviewers take liberties that oversimplify the work and play lip service to the elements that make it distinct from literature or film. They make little effort to acknowledge what comic readers and scholars find so thrilling about the fusion of text and image. After the New Yorker published this snarky analysis of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, I had to do a lot of damage control among friends, colleagues, and students to try to convince them that the story was actually quite innovative, insightful, and moving. (No Updike you say? Meet Chris Ware.)
If anything good comes out of this, it is the opportunity not simply to rant and rave about a subject that I care about, but to also plug Rich Watson’s new venture at the blog, Great Black Comic Books. His introductory post addresses some of these same concerns about quality and readership, and the recent reviews of Stagger Lee, Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow, and Keith Knight’s comic strip are useful and well-informed. And Prof. Fury continues to fight the good fight over at Pretty Fakes. Newsweek may not take notice of these comics, but I’m starting to think that’s a good thing.