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Review of Critical Survey of Graphic Novels: Independent and Underground Classics

By John Rodzvilla

Beaty, Bart, and Stephen Weiner. Critical Survey of Graphic Novels: Independents and Underground Classics. Ipswich, Mass: Salem Press, 2012. Print.

“Graphic Novel” is a problematic term in the history of Comic Studies. While it is commonly used to refer to any square or perfect-bound collection of comic strips/ stories, to some it also carries an air of pretension. They see the label as a plea for legitimacy from the literary world. Others follow Alan Moore’s proclamation that the phrase has become nothing more than a marketing term to indicate an expensive comic book. The idea of bound comic material with an extended narrative arc pre-dates the contemporary sense of the term. In Understanding Comics Scott McCloud points to The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck (1837), an English translation of Rodolphe Töpffer’s Histoire de M. Vieux Bois, as the first collection of an illustrated narrative and the precursor to the modern comic story. Since then publishers have periodically collected the daily newspaper strips into books for sale. Richard Outcault’s The Yellow Kid and most of the Disney characters have appeared in both periodicals and long-form albums throughout the 20th Century. In Europe, Herge’s Tintin, Peyo’s The Smurfs and Asterix the Gaul have all had successful runs in comic album form for over 50 years. Gil Kane and Archie Goodwin’s Blackmark (1971) from Bantam Books was one of the first fully-illustrated novels. While it didn’t use the term “graphic novel,” it is seen as one of the first examples of the genre and the start of the form’s emergence in comic culture. The book did not sell well and the work for the second volume ended up being published by Marvel. It was followed by another attempt at the illustrated novel in 1974 by Jack Katz, with his The First Kingdom. In 1976 Richard Corben’s Bloodstar and George Metzger’s Beyond Time and Again both featured the term “graphic novel” on the dust jacket. By 1978, the form was adopted into the direct market distribution to comic store and was being utilized by major publishers (the 72-page Silver Surfer series from Marvel), and independent authors (Will Eisner’s A Contract With God and other Tenement Stories and Wallace Wood’s The Wizard King).

By the early 1980s the phrase was also regularly used for perfect-bound reprints of contained stories from monthly series. By the mid-eighties “graphic novel” would be used within the industry to refer to either an original creation that presented an extended narrative that was meant to be read together or a collection of previously published work that would allow readers the chance to immerse themselves in a story that originally ran for months or years and, at least when talking about underground comics, could have been published across several different titles that may not have been readily available to all readers. By the 1990s traditional bookstores would also start selling these collections for sale to the reader who either didn’t have access to a comic shop or the patience to collect the serialized story.

In 2012 Salem Press introduced a new series focused on the history and importance of the graphic novel. The first title, The Critical Survey of Graphic Novels: Heroes and Superheroes, was released in April. The two-volume set was primarily focused on providing an academic framework to discuss the important hero narratives from the major comic publishers. The press also released surveys dedicated to Independent and Underground ClassicsManga, and History, Theme and Technique.

The second title in the series, Independent and Underground Classics, was released in May 2012 as a three-volume set of 215 essays covering the titles the editors have identified as independent and underground classics, with the goal of “establishing it as an important academic discipline and research topic.” The title was edited by Bart H. Beaty, University of Calgary, and Stephen Weiner, Maynard Public Library in Massachusetts. The series covers both collected novels and stand-alone stories under the “graphic novel” umbrella. The essays are arranged alphabetically. Each essay is approximately 3 to 4 pages long and provides the publication history, a plot synopsis, a list of characters (including physical attributes, role, relationships and aliases), the methodology and style of the art, literary themes, and the impact on both the comic and broader cultural community. Each essay begins with a list of key data including title, subtitle, the primary authors and illustrators, the period of serial and book publication, and the publisher. The entries conclude with a list of suggested further reading and a bibliography for the article.

The editors should be applauded for providing a well-thought structure that collects hard-to-find information on publication history and also provides an analysis of artistic style, which is often ignored in the study of comics. For academics interested in the narrative structure the sections on plot, themes and characters mirror entries common for more established literary models. The three-volume set also includes the popular authors and artists held as the creators of the canon for this branch of study: Robert Crumb, Lynda Barry, Frank Miller, Chris Ware, The Hernandez Brothers, Adrian Tomine, Daniel Clowes, Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel, and Neil Gaiman.

The editors were able to balance the scope of the three-volume set to include some of the important predecessors to the current understanding of the graphic novel as a distinct narrative. These titles include Frans Masereel’s woodcut novel, Passionate Journey (1922), Milt Gross’s He Done Her Wrong (1930), Drake Waller’s 1950 picture novel, It Rhymes with Lust, and Harvey Kurtzman’s Jungle Book (1959). Several of the earliest representations of the different uses of the form are also explored. There are entries on Kane’s Blackmark, Raymond Brigg’s children’s book, The Snowman, the adult-themed Omaha, the Cat Dancer by Reed Waller and Kate Worley, and even the popular Malaysian comic Kampung Boy by Lat. The editors bookend the entries with some of the important recent publications. There are entries on Crumb’s Book of Genesis, Jean Regnaud’s My Mommy is in America and She Met Buffalo Bill, as well as ongoing series including Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, Darwyn Cooke’s Richard Stark’s Parker, and David Petersen’s Mouse Guard.

While it is impossible in a survey, no matter how large, to include every important work, there are a few glaring omissions of titles that were groundbreaking in the world of independent comics, the most important of which is Dave Sim’s Cerebus. While Salem Press has provided an entry for the series in their Heroes and Superheroes title, Cerebus is one of the cornerstones for independent comics. It defined how owner-creators could use the graphic novel medium to broaden the commercial reach of a comic. It is one of the industry’s monumental works and its absence in the set is obvious. There are also some titles from the 1980s and early 1990s that have not had the luck for a sustained reading public, but have a historical importance in the overall rise of small press graphic novels. Paul Chadwick’s Concrete (in Heroes and Superheroes, as well) and Ben Englund’s The Tick are missing, as are all of P. Craig Russell’s operatic works. These omissions seem odd as the set does include entries for Bob Burden’s Flaming Carrot and Ted McKeever’s Metropol.

A bigger absence in the set is the representation of the more risqué underground comics. Robert Crumb’s two entries, The Complete Fritz the Cat and The Book of Genesis, reflect the limited presentation of the underground in this set. The Book Of Genesis was managed by a trade book publisher and Crumb has distanced himself from Fritz the Cat due to its popularity from the film. Beside Fritz the Cat the only real adult novel is Omaha the Cat Dancer. None of Crumb’s cohorts from Zap are represented. Where are the titles from Spain Rodriguez? S. Clay Wilson? Gilbert Shelton? Also absent any work from Bill Griffith, Vaughn and Mark Bode and Wallace Wood. The focus of the three volumes seems to be more on the personal and auto-biographical material that came out of the underground over the titles that challenged the moral foundations of comic and popular culture.

Even more egregious is an under-representation of artists who used the medium in the 1970s and 80s to give voice to women. Yes, women are represented in the entries. Alison Bechdel, Linda Barry and Jessica Abel all have the same number of entries as Crumb. The editors also include entries on work by Julie Doucet, Posey Simmonds, and Marguerite Abouet, but missing are entries for genre-defining work by Trina Robbins, Shary Flenniken, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Diane DiMassa, and others who were involved in providing a voice for women in the industry. The end result is an unbalanced representation of why the rise of independent and underground work was an important shift in the comic industry.

In the end, the Survey is useful, if flawed. It focuses on mostly contemporary independent work from American, British and French artists. The artificial division of entries between this and the first survey on superheroes is also problematic. While GrendelCerebusElfquest and Concrete are covered in that collection, they still stand as key titles from the independent and underground world. If the goal of this set was to focus more on the human rather than the heroic, then the entries for AliensPredatorAsterix300Tank Girl30 Days of Night and Flaming Carrot are all an odd fit for this survey. Overall, it’s an uneven survey that will appeal to the novice reader looking for canonical titles, but it does not help the emerging academic discipline by ignoring foundational works that helped to broaden the use of sequential art beyond the superhero and newspaper strip and into a vehicle for larger cultural discussions.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article misidentified Kim Deitch as a female comic artist. The article has been updated to correct this error.

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