Comic books and you
From basement bookshelves to college classrooms
Tuesday, November 21, 2017

“People can hardly form sentences that make any sense anymore; they’re making nouns into verbs, and acronyming words out of the first letters of a lot of other words, and using words wrong all the time to mean things that they don’t. So I guess little pictures are about the only way we’re going to be able to tell stuff in the future, since most anybody can understand them.”

This spirited defence of the graphic novel medium comes courtesy of the unnamed “well-known and highly-decorated researcher of popular culture” sourced in the introduction to Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth.

Jimmy Corrigan was released in 2000 to near-universal acclaim. It was the first graphic novel ever to win the Guardian First Book Award. Following in the footsteps of masterworks Maus (1986) and Watchmen (1987), the success of Chris Ware’s tour de force was indicative of how graphic novels had entered the literary pantheon. Indeed, Jimmy Corrigan was first published in its complete non-serialized form by Pantheon Books, an American imprint which has published works by the likes of Noam Chomsky, Jacob Burckhardt, and Simone de Beauvoir.

Comic books, once sold alongside flavoured rolling papers in head shops across North America, were metamorphosing at the turn of the millennium. Though they had long been subversive—as any single issue of Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman’s RAW magazine (1980-91) can testify—the prevailing image of comics as lewd or childish works of non-literature was beginning to subside. Persepolis, Fun Home, Palestine, and a plethora of other graphic novel titles began to appear atop year-end literature rankings. These weren’t $2 stapled-together paperbacks to be found alongside superhero schlock—Joe Sacco’s Palestine is bound in a sophisticated mud-brown hardcover, prefaced with an essay by renowned cultural critic Edward Said. It retails on Amazon for CAD $39.69. This pioneering generation of graphic novels, distinguished from their comic predecessors by an air of hardcover legitimacy, redefined preconceptions surrounding the medium. The term “graphic novel” had entered our cultural lexicon. McGill’s English department even offers a course on them.

As early as 1989, Drawn & Quarterly (D&Q), a Montreal publishing press began to make a name for itself in the emerging field. D&Q began as a quarterly anthology, compiling content by mostly local artists. It has since become an independent publisher of graphic novels, supporting two Mile End bookstores.

Peggy Burns, D&Q’s current publisher, shared her experience working in the world of comics with The McGill Tribune.

“If you grew up reading comics, you associate them with having something in childhood that belonged to you, that was unauthorized, and was probably disapproved of by authority figures in some way,” Carney said. “[It] was bad for you.”

“I was a publicity director at DC Comics in New York City,” Burns said. “[While] I was there, I respected the superheroes as a tradition [...] but I didn’t enjoy them as much as I enjoyed the Vertigo comics, [DC’s more adult, graphic content. [They] were more creator-owned [....] When there was an author behind the book, it was much more natural for me to promote it [....With the superheroes] it’s a team [....] It can all be a part of a bigger marketing initiative.”

Burns left DC Comics to work with D&Q founder Chris Oliveros in 2003. She was the company’s third employee, and Oliveris was then working out of a reclaimed dentist’s office. Her choice to relocate was due in large part to D&Q’s early roster of well-established artists—including Adrian Tomine, Chris Ware, and Joe Sacco—but also the hands-off policy that D&Q took with its creators.

More than 14 years and four office spaces later, D&Q has become a recognizable brand in its own right. D&Q’s progression from its humble origins to the two lavish bookstores it currently operates mirrors the evolution of the comic book medium.

Julie Doucet, one of D&Q’s top cartoonists, began her career photocopying handmade zines documenting her day-to-day life, which were mailed out to friends on a personalized subscription basis. D&Q is compiling the series—entitled Dirty Plotte—in a glimmering hardcover anthology to be published in Fall 2018. Burns detailed the efforts D&Q makes to preserve the hyper-personal, unauthorized quality of comic books’ roots, while working to legitimize graphic novels as a medium.

“I think it’s really about getting behind the artists,” Burns said. “I think if you’re 100 per cent behind your artists, you’ll always be cutting edge. Chester Brown, he did Paying For It, which is a memoir [about a man who frequents prostitutes], he’s always forcing us to reconsider what we might publish, understand through his eyes.”

D&Q works directly with artists, prioritizing their visions over editorial or marketing concerns. Julie Doucet’s brand of raunchy, explicit, feminist humour was unpalatable to most in the 1980s. Signed to D&Q in 1990, her early works are now at the forefront of recognized graphic novel artistry. D&Q prioritizes equal representation in the works they publish, and their construction of an inclusive graphic novel canon is worth getting excited about.

In her time at D&Q, Burns has strived to alter the traditionally male-dominated industry.

“It was a Boys’ club,” Burns said. “It [still] is a Boys’ club, but it’s becoming not a Boys’ club [....] My biggest concern with being a woman in comics is making a company that has other women in it. D&Q has 24 employees, and I would say about 75 per cent are female [....] It’s about empowering [women].”

While working tirelessly to feature female and other underrepresented artist perspectives, publishing houses like D&Q are bringing comic books up from strip mall basements and into New York Times listicles. The archetypal image of the ponytailed SimpsonsComic Book Guy is being supplanted. A greater diversity of graphic novel retailers and artists is emerging. D&Q firmly believes in the power of inclusivity, and building the graphic novel canon on these terms.

Like anything, however, canonization has its pros and cons. Sean Carney, associate professor in the English department at McGill University, fondly remembers the pre-graphic novel days of dingy storefronts, soda-stained pages, and action figure displays. He spoke of the nostalgic appeal of comics as an illicit art form.

“If you grew up reading comics, you associate them with having something in childhood that belonged to you, that was unauthorized, and was probably disapproved of by authority figures in some way,” Carney said. “[It] was bad for you.”

Comic books, as well as Carney’s engagement with them, have progressed in decisive, confusing ways. This semester, Carney is teaching ENGL 492: Image and Text, with The Graphic Novel as the topic of choice. No longer on the receiving end of his parents’ anti-comic lectures, Carney now delivers biweekly academic lectures on comics to an audience of millennials. Despite his own mixed feelings on the intersection of comics and academia, he believes that graphic novels offer something unique for students.

“As an academic, I don’t get a chance to do much reading during the school year, other than the reading that I have to do,” Carney said. “So it’s a manageable form of distraction, and it offers some very immediate satisfactions and pleasures [....] In a way, it’s too straightforward to warrant discussion, but there is something to be said for the pleasure of looking. And comic books are essentially an invitation to do that, at your own pace.”

The experience of reading for pleasure, at a personable, leisurely pace, is all but forgotten when October rolls around, only to be remembered with newfound excitement come May.

Elliot Sinclair, U2 Arts, is currently enrolled in Carney’s ENGL 492 class to fulfill the 400-level theory component of the Cultural Studies minor. His own experience in reading graphic novels aligns with Carney’s.

“It’s a different type of engagement,” Sinclair said. “[With graphic novels] you’re able to sit there and look at pictures. I find it less of a daunting task to start reading a graphic novel than to sit down and read a novel. It’s easier to motivate myself to read that kind of stuff.”

Many of the books in Carney’s course syllabus, such as Jimmy Corrigan, require meticulous attention to detail in order to fully experience the content. But, like going to an art gallery, it’s entirely up to you how long you choose to stay with each image. Carney views this subjective experience of pacing in graphic novels—particularly those inviting lengthy consideration—as a worthwhile respite from our relentless modern experience.

“You have to find time to relax,” Carney said. “[The] rendering efficient of our experiences automatizes them, it renders them mechanical. Everything has to be done efficiently, everything has to be done according to a time clock, everything has to be done as quickly as possible. And the experience of work like this is just to go contrary to that part of our modern experience. To get you to stop.”

Symptomatic of this relentless modern efficiency, our experience of time as McGill students is rendered in deadlines. One thing needs to be done sooner to make time for another thing that needs to be done better. Convoluted priority lists dominate our thought processes. The experience of reading for pleasure, at a personable, leisurely pace, is all but forgotten when October rolls around, only to be remembered with newfound excitement come May.

Throughout the semester, many students’ primary form of distraction is either making or enjoying memes, which share more similarities with graphic novels than one might expect. The components are already there: The image, the text, the layered irony, and the all-pervading existential dread. Ware is a meme-maker born 30 years too early. Carney is essentially a content aggregator—a FuckJerry, if you will. Perhaps our generational proclivity to these image-text combinations speaks to a terrifying decline in literacy, as Ware’s introduction and general scientific consensus would seem to attest. But, perhaps Carney is right as well. The world is asking a lot of young people these days. As a parent of a millennial, Burns sees graphic novels as a welcome escape for these overwhelmed youths.

“There’s so much pressure on kids to succeed that I do think we’re not as literary,” Burns said. “We also want our kids to have 10 after-school activities. And so then when you get to university, I do think students are attracted to the graphic novel class because it’s not going to take you three months to read the book.”

Sinclair recalls his first impression of graphic novels as a field of academic study.

“My knowledge of [graphic novels] wasn’t too [extensive],” Sinclair said. “I used to read comic books a bit when I was a kid [and] I had read Watchmen before, so I knew that I enjoyed them. But I had never looked at them from the literary perspective that this class offers. I always looked at them as something to be enjoyed rather than something to be analyzed.”

Elliot’s statement represents much of our generation’s engagement with comic books. Many of us recall comic books as a juvenile hobby: A relic of our parents’ generation, whose nerdiness we hold at arm’s length through stylized movies and TV shows. The Dark Knight made superheroes serious for us. Riverdale made Archie comics sexy. Graphic novels, though on the rise, are still in the process of infiltrating our cultural consciousness.

ENGL 492: Image and Text, despite its pretentious Cultural Studies course title, is a class about picture books. Across the street from the original Librairie D&Q, only a few doors down, D&Q has opened up La Petite Librairie D&Q, stocked entirely with graphic novels for children (also known as picture books). You could stumble into La Petite Librairie D&Q, and it would take more than a cursory glance to realize you’re in the wrong place. The books really don’t look that different.

But don’t we, as students, deserve to read a picture book once in a while? Maybe we’re dumber than our parents. Maybe this return to childhood things is indicative of our generation’s stunted development. Maybe it’s social media’s fault. But graphic novels have arrived, for better or for worse, and like social media, memes, Tasty videos, and an infinite number of other millennial fascinations, they’re here to stay.