Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Book review: "This Book Contains Graphic Language" by Rocco Versaci

This Book Contains Graphic Language (1)I came to the realization that comics (the artform) and comic books (the format said artform often takes) were legitimate art and literature way back in the early 1990s when I was in high school. I don’t know what their reputation is by teachers today, but back then making that argument was an extremely futile effort.

Thankfully, Scott McCloud released his masterpiece Understanding Comics in 1993. That book did a fantastic job of explaining how the artform of comics (not comic books per se) was indeed legitimate art; how it worked; what it can do that other artforms can’t, and how all the subtle nuances work. Comics may not be held to the same standard more traditional artforms are by the artistic community, but their reputation certainly has improved in the last few decades and McCloud’s book probably had a lot to do with it. That book absolutely will stand the test of time; if you haven't read it I implore you to get your own copy ASAP.

It’s great that comics are at least considered “art” by now, but are they considered “literature”? After all, comics do indeed tell stories just like books and movies do. They can also be used for autobiographies, education, and even journalism. If you’ve read comics like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and other non-superhero books that are considered masterworks, you know this medium can be and is legitimate literature. The problem is there’s only one book (as far as I can tell) making that argument: This Book Contains Graphic Language: Comics as Literature by Rocco Versaci, PhD.

This book was published in 2007, but I had not actually read it until this past weekend. That’s ironic, because when I bought it I was very excited about the possibility of it being on par with Understanding Comics. Though, just a few pages into this book I realized it was not (not even close, actually). I immediately recognized that this book was either a dissertation and not intended for the layman, or was intended for the layman but took a very dry, academic approach.

I was hoping Versaci was going to point out how brilliant those aforementioned works by Gaiman, Moore, et al, are and do so with the credibility of an academic. Unfortunately, there is nary a Sandman reference anywhere to be found. What Versaci concentrates on instead are autobiographies; so-called “New Journalism” works in the form of comics; holocaust memoirs and war comics as documentaries; and mainstream literature adapted into comics form. The majority of the actual comic books cited are obscure independent comics and graphic novels. The most recognizable of these works is probably Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor; and even that is pretty rare for an independent comic.

This Book Contains Graphic Language (2)Great critics are able to explain in layman’s terms why a work is entertaining, well-made, what it has to say about life, and why it’s important and significant artwork. But Versaci is not taking a mainstream critic’s approach with This Book…, but as how a professor would explain it to other professors. In order to comprehend this material you probably need to be an English or Philosophy major and familiar with schools of literary criticism like “Post-Structuralism” (ugh! I always hated that material in college). Therefore, the book is inherently dry since it’s not intending to entertain the reader the way Understanding Comics does. Though extremely well-cited, many of the sources are esoteric in nature. I’ll be there are only a handful of people who will be familiar with just the comics material presented here, let alone the non-comics material.

That’s the problem with literary criticism: unless the reader is already familiar with the source material, the writer’s thesis can be difficult to understand. Versaci does provide some visual examples from the comics he writes about; however, showing only one panel or even one page from a much larger work does not put the work into context. And if it does, it’s just one example; you need to view and read the entire piece to appreciate the point the [literary] critic is trying to make.

This is the major hurdle all mainstream critics and journalists of any medium face when trying to convey their opinion to their audiences: they only have a finite amount of space or time to show examples and then argue how they exemplify their opinion. Imagine if you wanted to tell someone about your favorite movie and you could only show them a single scene (or even a segment from a scene); is it realistic for them to appreciate your enthusiasm by such a relatively small example? Probably not. It's even worse when you're trying to re-cap or criticize their review as I'm doing with this blog.

This Book Contains Graphic Language is not the book I want it to be. As an academic dissertation about literature – which just happens to be comics – it is well written, well cited and well argued. As an educational and/or entertaining book for the average comic book enthusiast it is entirely too stiff, sterile, and stagnant to enjoy. It can be appreciated for its serious approach, but probably not enjoyed as the literary equivalent of Understanding Comics.

2 comments:

  1. What is wrong with writing a book from an academic perspective? This book appears to be based upon his literary course at Palomar, and thus seems to be aimed at an advanced critical discussion of literature (which, of course, includes comics). Based upon the marketing materials and your description, it is not intended for a wider readership, like UNDERSTANDING COMICS was. I'm sorry you dislike post-structuralism, but many others enjoy the study, and expanding it to comics seems a natural fit. Furthermore, a good literary critic will not simply rely upon art, which for copyright reasons must remain limited in re-publication; s/he will also describe the work and the context in which it is given and received. Disliking a book because it's not what you wanted reveals much more about you than it does about the work in question; and, frankly, I'm much more interested in what the work actually does say.

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    1. There's nothing inherently "wrong" with writing from an academic perspective if your audience is academic. But I bought this book in the graphic novel section at (the now closed) Borders. It's completely fair to go into this book thinking it's for the layman under those circumstances. It's also fair to criticize it for failing to meet that expectation.

      And I did say that as an academic work, this book is extremely well written, well cited and well argued - so it definitely exceeds on that front. However, the average comics reader probably isn't interested in that type of approach, so why take it to begin with?

      But yeah, if you want a purely academic discussion of comics as literature, then this book absolutely is for you. Have you read it?

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