Friday, 30 June 2017

"Comic Books Are The Best Medium Of Communication. Period."

Read 'Minds'
Words & Pictures Museum
June 20 - August 18, 1996

15 September 04

Dear Scott [Berwanger]:

It seems more and more obvious to me as we go along that "acceptance" is a largely-mythological concept—acceptance in the sense that comic-book people use it: that some day we might be like movies and television. I think both of those are dying in very interesting ways, dying out of a state of universal “acceptance” because of the fragmenting of society. With the growth of indy television and indy movies, more people are getting work, but the universal recognition factor is languishing. Most people who are thought of as stars (or, rather, Stars) are from the time period before the wholesale fragmentation began to take place. I think movies and television are becoming a lot more like comic books—environments where you find the thing you like and there you go, that’s your thing. Virtually everyone has an audience of whatever size and if you do it right an audience of a couple of hundred devotees and a few thousand marginally-interested people can provide you with a decent livelihood if you do right by them: be accessible, interested in discussing your own work, and supportive of the efforts directed towards you.

Translations I avoid because I’m unilingual. I don’t know what’s being communicated or how well if someone else is translating me. I tend to see translation as a different kind of creativity. You take something in one language and translate not just the words, but the underlying concept into another language and culture. Cerebus, I don’t think, is amenable to that. There are too many nuanced ideas I’m trying to get across, and it seems to me that nuance is the first thing to go when you’re changing a specific example of creativity into another example of creativity. Besides, I have enough problems with people trying to change me into a feminist in English without having to worry about how someone is attempting to do that in another language I don’t speak.

There are a bunch of us who have been trying to figure out how to accomplish a cross-fertilization between comics and other fields. I suspect virtually all, if not all, attempts could be summed up as you have summed up your own effort with comics and oil painting: “I’d have to say that it was a very marginal kind of success. Maybe not even that. By and large, the reception was only attended by family and friends, even though an ad was run in the local paper and 600 invitations were mailed to gallery patrons.” I mean, that is a success. Think of all the artists who would kill to be able to have that last half of the second sentence be true in their own cases. The number who will never have an exhibit anywhere. And I think that’s one of the “opposing poles” qualities that will keep comics and fine art at a remove from each other. You were looking to have an effect on people, to affect their thinking and their perceptions. Most gallery artists are just interested in moving the product and having a great party where they’re the centre of attention. Most gallery art is part of a network of interlocking “portrayers”: the agent, the gallery owner, the reviewer, the patron, the peer, all of whom are considered to be key players in successful gallery art. Communication, I think, went out the window a long time ago in that context.

My own experiment consisted of displaying the entirety of Minds at Kevin Eastman’s short-lived Words & Pictures Museum. What if you put a whole story up on the walls, so people could read an entire graphic novel? Answer: they don’t. You don’t read pictures on the wall, you socialize in front of the pictures with a nice glass of wine. The pictures are secondary conversation pieces. Looking on the bright side, it gave me a lot greater appreciation for the level of attention that a graphic novel gets. When you’re reading a book, the book is the entire focus of your attention. It’s something you do in isolation. You just don’t get that level of attention in a gallery setting.

We have vivid and active imaginations, so I’m sure these won’t be our last experiments with cross-pollination, but all of mine to date have pointed in the same direction: comic books are the best medium of communication. Period.

Take care,


PS: Jules Feiffer is a cartoonist best known for his strip Feiffer that appeared for years in the Village Voice. A lot of people think his work is dated at this point, but I don’t think so. It’s very squishy middle-of-the-road liberal stuff, but a lot of it is very insightful and very funny. He was way ahead of everyone else (including Woody Allen) in seeing the humour in psychiatry. Woody Allen got a lot of his stage persona from Feiffer's Bernard Morgendeiler character.

From "Dave Sim's Collected Letters 2004: Vol 3", a Cerebus Archive Kickstarter reward.


Carson Grubaugh said...

I saw Robert Crumb's "Book of Genesis" displayed at David Zwirner gallery in NY. They had the originals for the whole book on the wall, in order. There were insane people walking around slowly reading the book off of the wall. It blew my mind that anyone would do that when the book was for sale at the front desk.

This was not during an opening, though, which is what Dave is talking about. And, generally I agree that galleries and museums are not the appropriate venue for consuming comics.

Tony Dunlop said...

Off topic - but Happy Canada Day to Dominick, Damian, and other Canadian AMOCers! (Dave, too, but he doesn't come here often.)

Steve said...

Is it just me or does that beer mug not look quite right?

The handle is vertical, but the mug and beer are canted, ready for a drink.


Jeff Seiler said...

I'm with you, Steve. Every time I see it, it's just slightly wrong. Slightly off-putting.

Damian T. Lloyd, Esq. said...

Hey, thanks for the good wishes, Tony! In a couple of days, we shall be congratulating our USAnian friends on the anniversary of the independence.

Dave, as usual, takes himself as the measure of all things. The medium he happens to practice is the best -- uniquely among media, it has a metaphysics that takes independent action in the real world. Even within that medium, the style he prefers is superior to other styles because it's harder to do. (At one point, he maintained that the faction within his industry that he happens to belong to were intrinsically more moral than other factions.) The gender he happens to be is self-evidently the best -- the only one capable of rational thought and ethics. The political beliefs he happens to hold are the correct ones -- all other politics lead self-evidently to the decay of civilisation itself. The religious beliefs he happens to practice actually constitute the Unified Field Theory that unites cosmology with quantum theory.

I've wondered, though, if this egotism of Dave's isn't the same source of strength that allowed him to build himself into a successful cartoonist. He's said that people outside his chosen medium told him for years that his medium was dumb, that people within his chosen medium told him for years that his work wasn't good enough for professional quality, that for years he would have made more money babysitting than doing Cerebus. Perhaps he required a monumental ego to go over, around, or through all the obstacles.

-- Damian

Tony again said...

I hereby retract my well-wishes for those of you living in Alberta... ;-)

Jack said...

I'm not a big Feiffer fan, but one impressive thing about him is that he was a big influence on Woody Allen, Garry Trudeau, and (through Carnal Knowledge) Neil LaBute, all of whom have done really good work and none of whom have anything else in common with each other.