Thursday, November 1, 2007

Keeping it real

Part of the requirement for a scholarly presentation of graphic novels (so-called, of course) is, as you by now know, to add sorely-needed gravity to some airy -- at times, gassy -- effusions of aggrandizement from devotees.

This coming from someone who passionately enjoys comics. Under the stimulus of Alan Moore's Albion I had nearly indecent personal response, and I want to trumpet its excellence far and wide. That, however, makes me a fan. As an academic, I have to be ruthless in exorcising my enthusiasm (as in OED, Possession by a god, supernatural inspiration, prophetic or poetic frenzy) and approach the work -- and all comics the same -- with cool and measured reason.

Here is an example of what I mean. Look at these three blurbs from a current back cover of Moore's Watchmen (a comic which I entirely enjoy):
  • "The would-be heroes of Watchmen have staggeringly complex psychological profiles"
  • "A masterwork representing the apex of artistry"
  • "The greatest piece of popular fiction ever produced"
Now this is so over-the-top that it defies parody. The Onion could hardly increase the extremism. I happen to think Watchmen a great comic, and worthy of laudation. But staggeringly complex psychological profiles? And the greatest piece of popular fiction? Whoever wrote these plaudits (the first is from the New York Times) either has let enjoyment cloud judgement or simply has not read much fiction. Moore, for all his excellencies, cannot hold a candle to the truly great novelists; indeed, I have a hard time believing that Alan Moore thinks that Alan Moore holds a candle to .... oh, Dostoevsky, say. (And the adjective "popular" puts Watchmen up against Charles Dickens....)

This is not to say that when we write and lecture and present on a graphic novel that has made us greatly and cleanly happy we adopt dolorous countenance. Enjoyment and delight are healthy responses. It is rather, I would say, that calm and rigourous scholarly analysis improves our enjoyment by allowing us to know that, if ever a favoured work should be shown to fail against credible criteria of literary merit, the ones that do pass academic scrutiny are to that degree the more worthy of our huzzahs.

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