I previously posted parts 1 and 2 of my conversation with cartoonist Dylan Horrocks around the time when he was in Toronto and Montreal in late October and early November.
Since then, through a combination of being pretty busy at work and lazy at home, I haven’t got around to posting Part 3. So my apologies for the lateness.
Also apologies go out to Nick Craine and Richard Case, who originally had their names misspelled. This was corrected a few days after the post was made.
In part 3, the conversation shifts to how we process and think about comics, first through a comparison to map-making and then through discussion of the role of criticism.
Also of note is Horrocks’ recent conversation with Tom Spurgeon (who is coincidentally discussed in this interview). Spurgeon and Horrocks spoke about issues and concerns surrounding piracy, copyright and artistic ownership, which provides more depth to what he and I discussed in part 2 here. Well worth the read.
You can check out the latest Dylan Horrocks comics and news at hicksvillecomics.com
One thing I was interested in when I read Hicksville, and it’s something you see in Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, is the use of maps.
Interesting, I didn’t even think of that in Fun Home; I was so focused on the people.
I guess why I was interested is that maps and comics have similarities in how they’re perceived in that they provide spatial relationships to tell stories. Maps in particular, it’s a very tangible way to reduce the 3-dimensional world onto paper and to make sense of it in a shorthand, which is what is done in narrative.
A map is not even a 3-dimensional world transformed into two dimensions, it’s a multi-dimensional world that includes layers of politics and history and people’s emotional attachments to certain aspects of the landscape- all sort of things are feeding into the decisions that a cartographer makes about what to include in your map, what to highlight in your map, effectively what story you’re telling about this landscape with the lines and colours and so on. And so you get all kinds of maps telling different things about the same landscape.
With comics, I guess the landscape we’re mapping are our internal landscapes: the daydreams, the fears, the fantasies, the experiences.
So how does comics do that differently than other media, like theatre or film?
Well it does it a lot more cheaply than film.
(Laughter) Ok, that’s true. Which I’m sure your parents and sister can well attest to.
Ha, exactly. It’s one reason I’ve always felt very grateful to be in comics. I know so many people working in film and it’s a tough road. I love film, absolutely love film.
I don’t think I could ever work in it (laughter).
It’s funny, the question you ask isn’t a question I’m so interested in. I apologize.
Oh no, that’s alright.
I guess I’m less interested in what’s unique about comics and more interested in just exploring the whole landscape of what’s available. The reason I find it hard to even answer the question is that one thing I learned from studying maps is that borders are completely imaginary. When we identify a certain piece of territory as a particular nation, we’re telling a fiction, something that’s made up.
I feel it’s the same when we talk about different media. The border between comics and children’s picture books or comics and user manuals or VCRs or comics and maps- you look at some of Chris Ware’s comics there are times they are simply maps. Very complex maps, but that’s what they are. And at times they’re comics as diagrams and they’re still comics. When I was flying here you look at the safety card in the airplane and what you’re looking at is a whole series of comics on how to fasten your seatbelt, get in the crash position, pray, whatever.
With film, I learn so much. I’m not too interested in finding ways that we’re different. I think every time you find something new you… It’s like with human beings and someone says the thing that makes human beings unique is language but then we learn chimpanzees communicate in their own way and birds too and we learn that it’s bi-structured communication, but maybe it’s structured communication and chimpanzees have their own dialects and it evolves and grows. Well, ok maybe it’s not language, maybe it’s that we have an opposable thumb. Then we find that there are other species that have comparable traits. It’s like, I’m sorry, but we’re playing a game.
You touched on this subject in a Comics Journal article too.
You really have been researching haven’t you, I’m impressed.
We here at Sequential, we try our best. (Laughter).
In the article, you take on Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and you go through it and you find that these are rhetorical tricks to expand comics to what one is comfortable with saying comics are, and that by defining them, you are by its very nature categorizing and limiting them. Is that a fair assessment?
Yeah, and the funny thing is that what Scott’s trying to do is open comics up.
Yes, but when you do that through definitions it’s problematic.
Yes, that’s right. The approach he takes to doing that also limits them in a way that he wasn’t intending or fully grasping that he was actually doing. But I think it distinctly does do that. That essay was sort of my way of exploring a lot of those ideas myself and also just a close reading of Understanding Comics because I love that book so much and it was a chance to do a really close reading of that and also Reinventing Comics when it came out.
I looked at Reinventing Comics and found that that too was absolutely saturated with geographic and cartographic metaphors and, the thing with close reading is that you get to look at the metaphors that underlie how they structure their work and you can really dig away at them. And you start to uncover things that are not necessarily there on the surface. It’s what, dare I say it, there could be a lot more close reading in comics criticism than there is. I think if I had one thing that disappoints me about comics, about people writing about comics, it’s that there’s a lot of interesting things written about the sociological aspects of comics, and there’s a lot of good stuff written on comics as writing.
But not the relationship between text and image and how they relate to one another and create something that’s different?
Yeah…. I guess it’s just a very open, thoughtful close reading that’s not just formalist. There’s some really good writing on comics formalism. It’s just exploring, exploring the comic. Because I really have no interest in criticism which is trying to answer whether a comic is good or bad. It’s really the least interesting question you can ask about a comic. Also, a lot of the most interesting comics or films are badly done. But they’re incredibly interesting.
Right, they might still have something to say about a larger idea.
Yeah, or it might just a very intense package of resonances that bounce off against all kinds of things. And by refusing to explore that package of resonances simply because it’s poorly done, that’s so limiting. I simply can’t imagine interacting with art that way.
So who would you direct people towards who do good jobs critically?
Oh, I say all this and I’m not reading much criticism lately (laughter). It’s really embarrassing, I should take it all back.
The people I’ve often really enjoyed reading… and I haven’t read much criticism on paper lately, with apologies to The Comics Journal.
Well, their last issue came out about a year ago.
Haha, see how out of touch I am?
You see, when I was with DC, one of the side effects of that was I stopped reading comics and stopped reading about comics. I’ve started again, and I’m reading a lot online about comics, but it’s mostly blogging.
Well that’s alright.
You would know. (Laughter).
To me, that’s where a lot of the action is at the moment. And there’s a lot of good academic stuff on there.
I really enjoy Tom Spurgeon’s writing, even when I profoundly disagree with things he says, I’m always interested in reading them and exploring why I disagree.
But again, for me, I’m not trying to find criticism I agree with either. If it’s writing about comics I want to explore it and find interesting things. My favourite writing by Tom Spurgeon are his personal essays, profoundly moving and insightful. He wrote something years ago called “Comics Made Me Fat”. Anyone who writes about comics must read that. And another one, I can’t remember the title of it, but it’s about visiting the San Diego Comic Con, his father being ill, being depressed and about comics in all of that. And it’s a really moving essay that somehow manages to tease out of it some of the sadness about American comics. But I always enjoy Tom Spurgeon, he’s fantastic.
Over the years, I’ve also enjoyed a lot of what Heidi (Macdonald) has written. And… what are the blogs I look at? I subscribe to a whole lot, I don’t even know what I’m reading most of the time. I read some stuff on Sequential, and I know that there’s been some talk lately about whether interviews should be considered criticism, and I always enjoy a good interview. And what a stupid argument that is.
Sorry, stupid how?
I think the whole argument is stupid. It’s like the boundaries and definitions argument. “Let us define criticism and then establish what it good criticism”. Oh God. Get a life. Apologies to the people involved in this argument because some of them are friends of mine and good people.
But to me, criticism is simply a dialect within the broader language of writing. Again, to me, there’s no distinct boundary between criticism, conversation, theory, comics themselves. I mean what’s Understanding Comics? Is it criticism, is it theory, is it a comic, is it a story, I mean what the fuck is it? And it’s everything. The whole thing is, why are we trying to limit the way we read things? Why are we trying to judge one form of reading as essentially better than another?
Well I guess like maps, trying to reduce things that way helps us understand it.
That’s the best argument I’ve ever heard.
That way it’s much easier to make a story about what belongs and what doesn’t, what we buy into and what we don’t, and that way we have a structure to navigate the disordered world of art.
That’s true that maps are definitions and limit the interpretation. They imply a particular interpretation and suppress the alternative interpretations. But that’s why I never want a single map. What I want is an infinite atlas, an infinitely open atlas of maps. So I’m always open to looking at a new map from the same familiar landscape and finding out new things about it that I never would have thought of before. I guess that’s my thing about criticism and criticism versus interviews. I find the criticism, the very self-consciously academic criticism, like you find on some of The Comics Journal website, that’s a useful map so long as you don’t treat it as having some kind of privileged truth that some fansite doesn’t have.
Like maps, these shouldn’t be treated as a fixed reference point.
And you always have to know that by filtering something through one particular reading, that reading is limiting other alternative readings. So I always enjoy reading the stuff that they’re closing off.
Ultimately, what’s most interesting is reading the work itself.
I was at dinner last night with Seth and Charles Burns- sorry to name-drop- and Chester (Brown) was there and Peter Birkemoe and we were talking, of course, about comics. And if someone had recorded that and put it in a magazine it would be like an interview. And my God, what a fascinating conversation.
Of course, we weren’t talking about our own comics, but other people’s comics. I don’t see why there’s a distinction between that and a so-called critic having that conversation on paper. It’s simply a different register. In linguistic terms, it’s a different register or context.
Done privately rather than publicly.
Exactly, no one was writing it down.
I hope. (Laughter)
I’m always more interested in people opening up new readings, new windows, new doors, and I’m wary of people actively trying to close down those things and privilege or assert additional status over one kind of reading or another. It’s nice to have different kinds of readings fight it out, but it’s not about whether one wins at the end. It’s what unfolds in the course of that argument. And that discussion will open up all sort of interesting thoughts and ideas. The conclusion is almost of no interest.
It’s about the journey rather than the end result.
Which is the same process with writing. Writing is not about trying to write a story to convince people of your conclusion. It’s not how I write. It’s not how most anyone I know writes. Writing a graphic novel is very hard work and takes years, and what you’re doing is setting out on a journey, and it better be an interesting one.
Thanks for your time Dylan.