Monday, December 03, 2007

New York Times

This weekend the New York Times published a review of Ronald Reagan: A Graphic Biography, by Douglas Wolk (the review is by Wolk, the book was written by Andrew Helfer, with art by Joe Staton and myself).

I usually don't respond to reviews, because there really isn't much point, but in this case I have something to say. I don't actually disagree with anything Wolk writes. In fact, he hardly writes anything in regards to the quality of the book. However, he makes a distinction between how Reagan's story is told in the text versus how he is portrayed in the art, and that is worth commenting on.

Here's a quote:

"If you were to read only Andrew Helfer’s text for Ronald Reagan... it would seem to be a straightforward chronological trot through Reagan’s life story...Most of the book’s spin, though, is actually in its artwork, by Steve Buccellato and Joe Staton. After an opening montage of notable moments from Reagan’s public life...(the book) becomes a catalog of the sorts of visual rhetoric cartoonists can pull off: nearly every panel incorporates some kind of broad caricature or symbolic distortion, usually at Reagan’s expense."

He then gives a few specific examples where the text of the story is "factual," and the accompanying art is biased or distorted. Wolk may not be wrong, but he seems to lay the responsibility for the images entirely with the artists--as though we came up with the images on our own! Where does he think they came from, if not from a script written by the same person who wrote the dialogue? Isn't that obvious?

One of the many strengths of the comic book art form that the words and pictures combine to create something different than the separate parts. A well-written comic does not simply state in the text what the reader can already see in the art. Comics are a visual medium. The comic book writer uses the art to show the reader as much as possible, while using the text to provide information that can't be shown in an interesting way.

In the case of this "Graphic Biography," it was a real challenge for Andy to cram in as much information as possible about Reagan's long life without covering up all of the art with narrative captions. It was a difficult editing process and the result is the sparse, "factual" text that Wolk writes about. Probably more than half of Andy's original script ended up being distilled for space. However, the story Andy wanted to tell is right there in the art. If there are political biases (there are), broad satire (you bet), and "images that pass judgement" evident in the book, they were almost all in the original script and from the writer's point of view.

In case you don't know, a comic book script is a lot like a screenplay; writers provide descriptions of what they want the artists to draw in each panel, as well as penning the dialogue and narration. While the process is a collaboration, unless the artist flatly ignores the writing on the page, the story is the work of the writer. I understand that most people may not know how comics are created, but I'm just a little disappointed that the author of Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean doesn't seem to understand the process a little better.

In any case, it's nice to be mentioned in the New York Times, and it's always good to see comics get more attention in the media!


Don Hudson said...

After reading the review, I wonder what Douglas Wolk expected to see.

Allen Gladfelter said...

In my opinion, no, most people do not understand the distinction you speak about, least of all folks who make their living as writers. By that I mean writers who haven't any experience in comics. Most poeple see the words, and that's what the writer did, and then they see the pictures, and that's what the artist did. The writers don't have much to do with the art, the artists don't have much to do with the writing. That's how most people see it. You and I know that there's more to it than that, but we live and breathe the stuff. Most people don't give it all that much thought.

Marie said...

That's pretty silly. What an amazing coincidence that both you and Joe Staton had the exact same approach even though you don't know each other and even though neither of you gives a damn about Jane Wyman looking at her watch.

Wolk is a veteran comic book journalist. He was at our table the year we were showing the videos in San Diego. I am not sure why he thinks that the writer only applies words into existing art, rather than Andy directing the art as in a screenplay. In short, the architect of the book is being ignored while his work-for-hire team is bearing the brunt of the criticism for his vision.

'Course, sometimes it is tough to come up with something meaningful to say in reviews. He's just trying to earn a living.

But hey, you made a fortune on that book so don't complain... ;)

clarissa Marrero said...

Thank you for reminding me that I have not blogged for a while. I enjoyed reading your column on Reagan and Don, Allen, and Marie's comments. I need to read the book! Great photos, and Captain Claus looks like he will be giving lots of coal.