In an interesting but coincidental bit of timing, Leela Corman's "Life is an Ambush: My Two Birth Stories" came out on the Nib just as the latest edition of "The Best American Comics" is hitting the shelves.
In an even more interesting bit of timing, I got hung up at the eye doctor's for three hours this morning and have spent the rest of the day playing catch-up with my paying work, leaving me precious little time to unfold all the Wise Thoughts I was going to share.
Happily, however, when I went back to find out what I said two years ago about "Best American Comics," I discovered that I'd expressed nearly every one of those Wise Thoughts.
Which removes a lot of the time pressure, but let me freshen things a bit, because Corman's piece is an excellent example of how autobiographical art should work.
Last time around, I observed that the comics under review in the annual volume are neither comic strips nor superhero, and wondered if that style of "cartooning risks going so 'insider' that it becomes like poetry -- a once popular art form now of interest chiefly among its own navel-gazing practitioners."
Looking at the 2016 edition of the annual book, I start with the editor, Roz Chast, whose work I adore, and then I see that the highlighted contributors are all well-known within that non-strip/non-superhero corner of the trade.
So I don't think there's any question but that these people are very good at what they do, and certainly, if you want to get a sense of the state of the art, you should probably buy a copy of the book.
However, here's a third piece of timing:
The park where a large group of us take our dogs is just up the road from White River Junction, home of the Center for Cartoon Studies, and someone asked me the other day, as our dogs were frolicking, if I had much to do with CCS.
I said I didn't, that they don't teach the type of cartooning I tend to comment on and that they keep their cards close to the vest anyway: Some excellent cartoonists show up to lecture, but those lectures are closed and public presentations are extremely rare.
But as the conversation continued, I said that one issue that comes up there is that, while talent levels vary as they do in any MFA style program, the students are young and that, on the one hand, in this type of cartooning the style is to tell your story, but, on the other, most of them don't yet have a story to tell.
Which is not a knock, just an observation, and an observation well-covered in that previous blog entry, since I worked for years on a novel that didn't matter because I didn't have a story to tell.
As noted there, I had asked a critic to unload on me, because I was tired of lukewarm rejections, and he did. I would strongly suggest you go back and read the longer version, but he said
Everybody went to college ... it's not news, it's not drama, and no one wants to read pages and pages about a fellow meeting his new roommate, registering for classes, worrying about how to meet girls. That stuff is commonplace -- which is very different from being universal. It is simply crushingly, embarrassingly boring.
(Admittedly Joyce concocted Ulysses from the most banal, quotidian events in the life of Bloom and Stephen, but that commonplace material had an exotic richness for non-Irish readers, and was supported by surpassingly elegant prose, plus many ingenious tricks with point of view, plus other felicities.)
There is much more to ponder there, including that, in a novel, someone walking down the street is usually carrying on an internal monologue, while, in too many comics, it's just a series of pictures of a guy walking down a street.
If the internal monologue is interesting, I don't care that the novel doesn't include explosions. But if all a guy does is walk down the street -- novel or comic -- I want my money back.
Now, one answer to this is that there was a time when young artists and writers put in their time in grinding work that paid the rent but provided little artistic satisfaction, but they all had easels in their bedrooms and novel manuscripts in their desk drawers and that the time came when they burst upon the scene in a case of an "overnight success that took 20 years."
And I will say that I learned a lot about writing for ad agencies and in newsrooms, and I imagine artists learn a lot making advertisements and designing magazine pages and so forth.
But another answer is that some people are able to tell stories and some are not, and you know this: One person can talk about their trip to the shoe store and have everyone falling on the floor with laughter, while another could describe rappelling down a volcanic cone and people would be looking at their watches.
Part of it is technique, but a large part is perspective, by which I mean knowing what your story means and why you are telling it before you begin.
If you didn't click on Leela Corman's link at the top, do it now and read her piece.
There are many ways she could have screwed this up, but the first is to have written it too soon. She had both halves of her story in hand, but there is a much larger element of waiting not necessarily for that second event, which may never happen, but until you know what it means, however that clarity comes.
Another obvious trap would be to use that second event to cancel the first, or to make it okay, or to pretend it took away the pain, and that would be false on nearly every level, personal and artistic.
And God bless her for not telling us what it all meant, except as she did.
Brilliant work, done right.
Autobiography seems easy but, as with most things that seem easy, it is extraordinarily hard to do well, and it starts with one question: Who gives a shit?
You either need to come up with a really good answer, or, like Harvey Pekar and James Joyce, you have to find a way to make people give a shit.
If you want to take this further than two minutes and 33 seconds,
you have to find out, and tell us, about his life,
his dreams and why he turned on the gas.