Sunday, March 23, 2008

So, what of this, if anything?

I was listening to NPR this morning and they had a short feature on Toby Barlow's new book, Sharp Teeth, a contemporary werewolf story written in free verse. I was only half-listening, and heard some references to Homer and whatnot, but then caught Barlow describing his book as a "graphic novel without pictures."

Hunh?

The NPR website lists the full quotation: "a ripping yarn with the extra words ripped away ... a graphic novel without the pictures, or a hard boiled novel that's been boiled down to a reduction sauce."

As Jude Law said in I Heart Huckabee's: wait, what does that even mean?

Isn't the essence of comics (and hence, graphic novels) something about the words and pictures working together to carry the narrative? Or just pictures, when there are no words? The excerpt I read looked more like an epic poem than anything anything else. Isn't poetry already distilled language, concentrated imagery, that conveys more with less? Does this metaphor really add any depth to the description that calling it poetry doesn't?

I don't think so. And I think there might be another reason behind its use. Googling the phrase only garners two hits: in a review of Richard Morgan's first novel, the science fiction story Altered Carbon and in a review of comics writer Warren Ellis's first prose book, the gonzo detective novel Crooked Little Vein. In addition, Barlow's book itself sports this blurb from Scott Smith: "If Ovid had been raised on a steady diet of Marvel Comics, Roger Corman, and MTV, he might have written something like Toby Barlow's Sharp Teeth." All this seems to indicate to me that something else is going on.

I think this metaphor is the highbrow marker for confusing form with genre when thinking or talking about comics. I don't think any of the three uses of this metaphor - even by the author himself - really indicates anything about the narrative structure or energy of the text; I think they're shorthand (or code) for saying something about the book's content and its relative value or merit, the same way an action film might be accused of having a "comic book plot."

I'm not sure how I feel about that, but I think it is what's happening.

Update - full disclosure:

Re-reading this post today, I realized I had only searched for "graphic novel without pictures." However, a search for "graphic novel without the pictures" (that ignores Sharp Teeth references) only nets a few more results:

In a parent's guide to children's books discussing Quantum Prophecy, described in brief as "Comic-book style superhero action; moral dilemmas, some driven by visions of the future."

In a review of An Alchemist with One Eye on Fire, a collection of poetry described as having "cartoon-like imagery."

In a customer review on Amazon of The Doomsday Brunette, a book about "genetically engineered superwomen."

In a customer review on B&N of The Traveler, in which the book's action sequences are compared to Kill Bill and V for Vendetta.

In a personal remembrance of having read Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny over thirty years before.

All of these seem to support my initial response.

There was one different take. In a blog review of The Plot to Save Socrates, the reviewer notes the author's spare writing and lack of descriptions, and uses the graphic novel metaphor as negative criticism.

So, is this a mostly useless little phrase, then?

5 comments:

Sharp said...

Well, here's a few thoughts on it:

(a) is it an epic poem? Maybe, but most epics follow a metered form, which Sharp Teeth definitely ain't got. Yes, it's a homage to The Iliad, The Odyssey, etc, but it's just as much a homage to Jack Kirby, Frank Miller and Alan Moore, etc.

(b) the classification and study of poetry is, sadly, largely an academic industry, and thusly simply calling Sharp Teeth "poetry" might invite a lot of political scrutiny which, frankly, it might be awfully nice to avoid, especially if one is only interested in telling a tale and not defending a thesis.

(c) Truthfully, most people would prefer putting a hole in their head rather than voluntarily read any poetry. Which is not to say that they wouldn't like, enjoy, appreciate poetry if they encountered it by accident. So framing it a different way, and using a variety of metaphors to attract the potential reader's attention, might be more encouraging than just using the word "Poetry," which generally evokes images of the Norton Anthology and the inscrutable Donne.

(d) There's a greater chance that a potential reader might, however, pick up a copy of "The Dark Knight" or "Hellboy." So a comparison to that genre vs. the works of Emily Dickenson might not be a bad way to encourage a curious reader or two.

(e) And if the description is slightly nonsensical and conjures up images of Jude Law, is that necessarily a bad thing? Perhaps out of confusion on might try reading a bigger chunk of the book and see if one can discern what the writer means by such metaphor. There is still the off chance that one's suspicions will be confirmed and one will still find the description absolute nonsense but still enjoy the book nonetheless.

(f) by the way, what is this marvelous human obsession with classifications? We are a species obsessed with them, in food, in politics, in literature, etc. But "what kind is it?" isn't to me as important a question as "what is it?" in this case it is simply an attempt to use character and plot to drive the reader's attention from one moment to the next, to follow some of the basic rules of form and storytelling while also gently aiming to deliver something that is in some way modestly new.

Walaka said...

I'm not so sure there are all that many more folks who would pick up Hellboy than those who would Dickinson, but I generally agree with your point about the utility of the comparison when it comes to marketing pizazz. My question was only whether it had any analytical validity. Even your description in item (f) sounds a lot like melodrama, a category we already have.

And I don't whether there is an obsession with classification, but we sure do it a lot, as a way of understanding the universe, don't we? As a matter of fact, a common model of definition (the "what is it?") starts with classification (the "what kind?"):

"a table is a piece of furniture used to..."

"a cow is a domesticated mammal that.."

and so on.

And since we do classify stuff so much, I think that the genre-form confusion regarding comics (or graphic novels) could be problematic. If everything comics-y is automatically associated with certain genre characteristics, other kinds of stuff in the form might get overlooked.

John said...

Funny that Sharp thought it might be a minefield to compare his work to "poetry". Little did he know that Comics geeks are even more protective of their turf!

Yojimbo_5 said...

I don't know if it's "classifying," so much as calling BS on an empty marketting strategy.

You can say, of course, it's like "a graphic novel without the pictures," but then that's not really a "graphic" novel...it's a descriptive novel (which seems less special).

There are lots of little amusing parallels you can make ("it's a ball, without the roundness"), but basically it's a positioning statement without much basis.

In a world where merchants and artists are vying for attention of the Masses, scratching out any advantage in the cacophany by Any Mean Necessary is probably a defensible strategy. But, I'm not so sure how using such an oxymoronic description can win over the merely casual interest in the target audience...if that's who the target audience is.

Wouldn't it be more honest to say "If you liked 'Cavalier and Clay'...." But then, that might be seen as riding the coat-tails of another project, when trying to convince of Sharp Teeth's own "uniqueness."

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