Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Why I'm shirty about this NPR story

I posted yesterday about an NPR story about Brian Selznick's Wonderstruck and because I'm a pedantic little fussbudget it's still sort of bouncing around in my skull.  Since this blog is largely an exercise in getting those voices out I feel the need to go on at a little more length.

The article bothers me for two reasons.  One of them is external to the story itself and is what the earlier post was about; the guy doing lead-in, whose name escapes me at the moment, opined that it was rare for an author to illustrate their own works.  Now, the problem is really that he wasn't specific enough.  He probably meant 'novelist' instead of 'author', in which case I'm largely on board, assuming we're not talking about children's books (because then we have to add Shel Silverstein, Richard Scarry and Dr. Seuss, among many others, to the conversation).  Stephen King does not illustrate his novels, nor does Neil Gaiman, nor do basically any of the novelists whose works you will find lining the walls of bookstores.  But he said 'author' and for whatever reason the ambiguity of that word rang the bell in my head, and I immediately thought of the writer-artists I linked in the post, as well as a few others.

Art Spiegelman is probably best known for Maus, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize.  Naoki Urasawa is a highly-regarded comic book artist; he has won multiple Japanese awards for his work, and while he doesn't have a Pulitzer he's been name-dropped by a Pulitzer winner.  Frank Miller is a little more populist, given that his work is primarily genre work, but he has won multiple industry awards and is incredibly influential among American comic book artists.  Eiichiro Oda is the author of One Piece, the most popular manga work in Japan (a statement that is meant to be factual, not hyperbolic).  Jeff Smith is the writer and artist of Bone; like Miller, he has won multiple industry awards and Bone continues to be a very popular and critically-acclaimed book.  Bill Watterson should need no goddamn introduction.

Beyond this list, we have Alison Bechdel, creator of Fun Home, which landed on many best-of lists for the year 2006, including that of The New York Times.  It also was named one of the best books of 2006 by Time Magazine.  Not best comic books, best books, full-stop.  Chris Ware, another independent comic book artist and cartoonist, has, again, won multiple industry awards and, notably, won the Guardian First Book Award in 2001 with Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, marking the first time a graphic novel has won a major UK book award.  Dave Sim may have gone 'round the bend in recent years, and his most well-known work to date, the 300-issue-spanning Cerebus, was done with a collaborator, but his influence on independent comic books was hugely influential in establishing a path for comic book creators outside of the auspices of Marvel and DC's publishing arms, and even though he had assistance from Gerhard on art duties, Sim was still responsible for both art and writing, including some of the most creative lettering the industry has ever seen.

These are ten authors who illustrate their own works.  The research wasn't instantaneous, but the recall of their names was.  There are more besides; Brian Lee O'Malley, creator of Scott Pilgrim, is another one who drew his own comic; Grant Morrison and Brian Michael Bendis began as artists drawing their own stories, although their strengths were on the writing end of that spectrum; Herge, creator of Tintin.  Charles Schultz.  Chester Gould.  Will Eisner.  Jack "The King" Kirby.  It's rare to find an author who illustrates their own work?  Really?

But my main problem is actually with the story itself, because comics weren't mentioned once during the story about Selznick's book.  And it just betrayed this odd laziness, because it seems to me that that would be in the top five questions I would ask if I were writing about a novelist who drew some pictures.  "Oh, you drew some pictures that go with your story?  Are you aware of this rich medium marrying visual and written elements that already exists?  Compare and contrast."  That actually reads hostile to Selznick, who I don't have a beef with; I'd guess that he is probably familiar with comics, even if that's not quite what he's doing (he looks like he's more from the children's book tradition from his drawings, and that's without even knowing that he's both a Caldecott and Newbery award winner).  My beef is with the journalist, who didn't ask the question and thus roused the wrath of the fussbudget.  It's lazy.  Imagine a painter gives an exhibition of her paintings, and instead of having them hung in a traditional gallery she screens a little movie of her and some friends of hers enacting stories which draw each work together into a larger narrative context.  If you were interviewing that painter and didn't ask, "so how is this different from a "movie"?" isn't there some kind of journalism fairy that would pop into being on your shoulder and swipe your press card until you write, "I will do more research," on the blackboard one hundred times?

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