Thursday, 29 November 2012

Comic Book Values

Cerebus #4, inside back cover (June 1978)
Art by Dave Sim
(from the introduction to Cerebus #5, Swords Of Cerebus Vol 2, 1981)
A few weeks after this issue came out, I got a call from Phil Seuling who was our biggest distributor at the time. He didn't like the issue. He said that the first four issues were great, that they had gotten progressively better -- more humor, more plot, better pacing. But No. 5 "didn't help the book. It didn't hurt, but it didn't help."... He was right...

This tied in neatly with the Gil Kane interview in Comics Journal #38 that had started me re-thinking the whole approach I was taking to doing my own comic book. The particular quote that influenced me was:
"The difference between a comic book and a novel is not labor, not effort, it's the values. In other words, there are no meaningful values in a comic book. The people in comic books are two dimensional people going through the most elementary kind of situations, not enough to sustain anybody's interest beyond an adolescent. A novel has characterization, it has suspense, it has a structured situation full of substantial values that will hold the interest of an intelligent person. That's what I mean. Those values, if they are properly translated - Harvey Kurtzman translated them into comics. His comics were literate, they were intelligent, they were humane, they were interesting, they were funny, they were everything.

For instance, political cartoons, humor strips in newspapers are written in an infinitely more adult way: they're more intelligent, they're written for adults by adults with adult humor. They're really clever, and they represent adult values and that's why adults read them. Adults read them because, regardless of the fact that they're comics, they're dealing with adult frames of reference. And comic books don't have those frames of reference."
After I finished the fifth issue I embarked on an extremely lengthy process of applying adult sensibilities to each issue of Cerebus, trying to approach every plot problem on as mature a level of communication as I could. It was not easy, and still isn't. But at the very least, I wanted to feel that each issue of Cerebus advanced our cause just that much more than the issue that preceded it. Fortunately, fan reviewers, editors, columnists and letter-writers have an uncanny knack for recognising an issue that pulls sideways instead of forwards (I knew they were good for something).


adampasz said...

I remember this quote when I read Swords back in the 80s, and it really stuck with me. I think it was a truly brilliant insight on Dave's part that allowed him to make the leap to a more "literate" approach to writing.

Max Southall/CerebusTV said...

It's not just the age bracket that's the target audience that matters for quality.

There have been any number of books, including illustrated ones, that were aimed primarily for children audiences and yet were brilliant works.

Just for one example, think of Lewis Carroll's close work with artist John Tenniel, when Lewis felt is own illustrations weren't equal to his texts.

And there are numerous children's books which are of a high order of creativity to this day - as an example, Shelley Byers' and Gerhard's "The Wish."

For myself, I have purchased children's books which I was especially taken with as to being truly special - even though I also read the Dostoyevsky pantheon.

Eric Hoffman said...

An especially pertinent quote, thank you for "capturing" this, Tim.