Monday, November 20, 2006

American Born Books

The graphic novel really is getting respectable. So respectable in fact that for the first time one was shortlisted for a major literary award. Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese was nominated for the 2006 National Book Award in the Young People's Writing category. Writes Edward Guthman in the San Fransisco Chronicle:
That pride of identity is the overriding theme of "American Born Chinese," which tells the story of Jin Wang, a son of Chinese immigrants who moves to the suburbs from San Francisco's Chinatown and struggles to assimilate at a mostly white school. Yang interweaves Jin's journey with two other stories: the legend of the Monkey King, a Chinese folk hero; and a sitcom starring Chin-Kee, a gross Chinese stereotype with buck teeth and a habit of interchanging his r's and l's. ... It's easy to imagine, while reading "American Born Chinese," that Yang based Jin Wang's story largely on his own childhood. The author says that's true: "I was Asian and I wore glasses and I was really skinny, and I knew that I was stereotyped as a nerd. So there was part of me that kind of rebelled against that."

The National Book Awards began in 1950 when a consortium of book publishing groups sponsored the first ceremony and dinner at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City to highlight exceptional American writing, and increase the popularity of reading in general. The awards recognize achievements in four categories: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People's Literature.

The overall winner in the fiction section was The Echo Maker by Richard Powers, with runners up:

Mark Z. Danielewski - Only Revolutions
Ken Kalfus - A Disorder Peculiar to the Country
Dana Spiotta - Eat the Document
Jess Walter - The Zero

The poetry award went to Nathaniel Mackey for Splay Anthem. Timothy Egan's The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl took the award for non-fiction. And Yang was beaten to the main prize for Young People's Literature by M.T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume One: The Pox Party (now that's a title!). The complete shortlist is archived here.

(Thanks, Kamal, for your notes and recommendations in the e-mails you sent and if The Worst Hard Time really is better than The Grapes of Wrath, I must buy it!)

34 comments:

The Visitor said...

i am so buying that ABC graphic novel today. been wanting to. the boookstores should start advertising on ur blog and bring you some revenue since ur helping to promote books. but hey, do they care?

bibliobibuli said...

i saw lots of copies of it in mph 1 utama.

i think i'm just a bit dense about making money from blogging, visitor. i wouldn't want to be sponsored by anyone because then i'd have to say nice things about them, wouldn't i? i also don't want ads on my page cluttering it up and looking ugly ...

Kamal S said...

Dear Sharon! You made my day! Love this posting! THE WORST HARD TIME is the new IN COLD BLOOD........great non-fiction read! Will review THE ECHO MAKER once I receive it as an extorted Xmas gift.

While we are still on NBA, don't forget to pick up THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING by Joan Didion, last year's NBA winner for best non-fiction. If you have plenty (I mean, really plenty) extra times, do check out last year's Fiction winner, CENTRAL EUROPE (all 900+ pages) by William T. Vollman. Looking for something dramatic but less numbing? Check out TRANCE by Christopher Sorrentino. All are available at Kinokuniya. Maybe MPH. Borders sucks!

Ted Mahsun said...

Tony Long, editor of Wired News ranted about this some time back, saying that "comics" shouldn't be winning a National Book Award. (Scroll down a bit, first part of article is about music downloads.)

But Gene Yang wrote a good response.

counterrestrial said...
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counterrestrial said...

Sharon, your observation on the graphic novel's gaining respectability is right-on... it's way overdue, though, as it should have happened when Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer for his holocaust memoir MAUS. It's only until recently mainstream publishers are beginning to take notice. The publication of the two new ‘highbrow’ anthologies available in bookstores are testaments to that: “The Best American Comics 2006”, and “An Anthology of Graphic Fiction”. Both titles are available at borders now the last time I checked, and are great introductions to the more literary and aesthetic spectrum of comics art. Both are good, but my advice would be to get “Best American Comics” for the more conventional, ‘straight’ narratives, and “Anthology of Graphic Fiction” for the more outrĂ©.

My own tastes been veering towards the more visual and experimental type of comics found in avant-garde anthologies like Blab! and Kramer’s Ergot (do a Google search on those titles, they’re great) rather than the more narrative-oriented ones, but the best comics on my list still consists mostly of autobiographical/ biographical or semi-autobiographical titles… Seth’s nostalgia-ridden “It’s a Good Life if You don’t Weaken”, Chester Brown’s “Louis Riel”, Joe Sacco’s Palestine, Safe Area Goarzde, Charles Burn’s Black Hole, and the work of Adrain Tomine, Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware are highly recommended. Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor is also very good. And for those of you who have been following the hype Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis is deserving of the acclaim it's gotten. An film adaptation of it will be released next year:

http://certgraph.blogspot.com/2006/11/i-loved-every-page-of-persepolis-cant.html

For those of you who aren’t afraid of more challenging stuff in the vein of James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, you must own Gary Panter’s Jimbo In Purgatory, something which is best described as Dante meets Canterbury Tales and filtered through Dadaist/punk rock sensibilities. It’s impossible to read, but that’s the fun of it.

Also, McSweeny’s Quarterly Concern Issue Number 13 was an all-comics issue (I have it on a special place on my shelf, it’s way too gorgeous to put with my other junk). It was edited by the aforementioned Chris Ware, who did great multiple covers for the New Yorker recently:

http://www.newyorker.com/online/content/articles/061127on_caption_index1

sympozium said...

So if a graphic novel can win a book award, should it be fair that a textual comic (ie novel) be allowed to win a comic award?

The Visitor said...

"book" doesnt necessarily mean text only wat. and "comicbook" means must have pictures mah.

la, dis kind of question no good to ask wan la. har. har. har.

anyway, i got ABC oredi. will read it tonite, cos i will be too tired to do any writing. (Sharon, i'm working on another short story! i'm on a fucking roll!)

i like very much "Goodbye, Chunky Rice". the same author did "Blankets", which is a beautiful, beautiful, very tender story. made me teary eyed in some parts. if you've ever grown up loving and losing, you'll cry buckets reading it.

Ted Mahsun said...

Didn't the Watchmen get into last year's Time 100 Best Novels list?

bibliobibuli said...

kamal - it's nice to meet someone who radiates so much enthusiasm for american literature and is keeping up with the new releases. please do keep us updated on what you're reading.
ted - thanks very much for the links. i am not too sure which side of the debate i'm on. but over the period i've been writing this blog graphic fiction has nudged its way into my consciousness and my respect for it and interest in it is growing.

you're right about "the watchman" ted, but the 100 best novels list isn't an award really ...

counterterrestrial - thanks for continuing the education with some links i must check out.

sympozium - textual comic" *LOL* but i think visitor fights the point quite nicely. btw are there any awards for graphic fiction?

The Visitor said...

oh, forgot to say that those "books" i mentioned are graphic novels.

best wan!

counterrestrial said...

"So if a graphic novel can win a book award, should it be fair that a textual comic (ie novel) be allowed to win a comic award?"

I can see your point but the problem is that comics are not so much a genre, but a visual language. A comic can definitely win a book award, as is definitely has literary/ narrative qualities, but you won’t see Jonathan Safran Foer win an Eisner or a Harvey because comics are a more specific language, an extension of iconic storytelling and sequential art. Furthermore on a surface level, textual novels don’t share the craftsmanship involved in making comics, the layouts, staging, panel compositions etc.

Also keep in mind that comics are such a marginalized, and often bastardized, artform that most self-respecting writers would take it as a mark of shame to win a ‘comic’ award anyway :) This stigma is to the extent that that some of the reactionary underground cartoonists now actually resent the respectability comics are getting. You could define their creed as “Screw New Yorker, screw David Eggers, screw High Art, let’s get comics back down to its lowly, poop joke worshiping, anti-establishment status.” (Cartoonists like that include Johnny Ryan, Sam Henderson and ‘Kaz’)

Coincidentally there’s a lot of depression and lack of self-worth in those waters… There’s an inordinately high amount of cartoonists who are self-debasing, self-pitying, neurotic, R. Crumb-types, as it takes a certain self-destructive quality to WANT to be a cartoonist. Aside from the near-impossibility to make any money out of comics PLUS the lack of respect you get, the process of making comics itself is insanely masochistic: It takes years to complete a book (Charles Burn’s BLACK HOLE took over a decade to write/draw) These artists spend months laboring over a single page, and in the end the most they achieve for your efforts is a nomination in the same category of some industry hack/ inker for BATMAN or some juvenile nonsense.

So hell, I say give them a book award, you could do a lot worse.

The Eternal Wanderer said...

I am soooo gonna get ABC, whether it'll take up my writing time or not!! Thanks for the heads up, Sharon!

Graphic novels make up a large part of my reading materials as I get a lot of creative ideas from them and change it to suit my stories. Besides that, graphic novels also helped me to visualise the story better. My favourite ones so far has been Frank Miller's Sin City and Neil Gaiman's Book of Magic

The Visitor said...

"in the end the most they achieve for your efforts is a nomination in the same category of some industry hack/ inker for BATMAN or some juvenile nonsense."

man, that is just so WRONG. Batman juvenile nonsense? i don't think so. where do you think graphic novels started? from the Mona Lisa?

the first graphic novels were from that stable you call "juvenile nonsense." that's where you get your Black Hole and gang. i know, cos i was there collecting them when they started. i used to order Epic Illustrated from the US becos back then, quality comics (or the more adult oriented and less mainstream stuff) were hard to get over here. Epic had some of the best and offbeat material during a time when the superheroes were monopolising the scene.

Alan Moore started bringing mainstream comics into a more adult space, with sex and nudity, and more sophistication in the stories, and it started with, guess what, "juvenile nonsense" like Swamp Thing. i remember Swamp Thing under Moore was the first mainstream comic series to bypass the Comics Code Authority, meaning it had content that was not suitable for kids.

so, i think we shouldn't be so quick as to dismiss such important origins of the graphic novel.

The Visitor said...

and anyway, when did it matter how long an artist took to draw a graphic novel? does taking more time necessarily mean better quality?

seriously, i think some of the artwork done by those u call "industry hacks" are far better than some of the "alternative" work out there.

the same goes for novels. does taking a longer time to write mean a better book?

bibliobibuli said...

i am out of my depth but enjoying the conversation

ew - i understand that alex garland (whose dad was a famous cartoonist) drew his novel, 'the beach' in graphic form before he ever wrote it as a novel (though i don't think his drawings saw light of day)

counterrestrial said...

"man, that is just so WRONG. Batman juvenile nonsense? i don't think so. where do you think graphic novels started? from the Mona Lisa?"

Oh, I was just using Batman as a general example on the assembly line process of the comics industry has often resorted to (multiple inkers, letters etc... more on this later) I hope you didn’t take it as me meaning everyone who has drawn Batman or a superhero comic is a hack :) There have been some great Batman Graphic Novels over the years. Have you read Arkham Asylum? Dave McKean’s photorealistic artwork is superb.

So... yeah, don’t get me wrong, I have huge respect for the pioneers in superhero comics: Kirby, Ditko etc. They don’t engage me story-wise, but I can see the craftsmanship and sincerity involved in their work. But most mainstream comics nowadays… well, let’s just say I read somewhere that Marvel doesn’t even make money out of comics anymore, they’re just publishing them just to keep the merchandizing possibilities alive (i.e. movie tie-ins, Video Games...) Of course there’s been a few good writers over the years, Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman for example.

"the first graphic novels were from that stable you call "juvenile nonsense." that's where you get your Black Hole and gang."

Well, actually the first comics to bypass (to challenge would be a more appropriate) the Comics Code Authority were the underground comix of the 60s and early 70s, (which you could say were successors to E.C. comics, mainly Harvey Kurtzman’s MAD). Underground luminaries Justin Green created “Binky Brown meets the Holy Virgin Mary”, which dealt with his O.C.D and catholic upbringing and pioneered the genre of autobiographical comics, with a certain confessional quality to it. Artists like Trina Robbins and Sherry Fleniken started the first wave of feminist comics in a medium predominantly associated to the young male demographic. Robert Crumb was the master satirist who broke all sexual, political, and intellectual taboos of the era. Victor Mossosco and Rick Griffin introduced an element of abstraction and psychedelic poster design in comics. They paid for their excess though, lots of these creators got into censorship trouble and obscenity laws… the most famous case would be the controversy surrounding the Parody comic Air Pirate Funnies, which was sued by Disney because they had Mickey Mouse smoking pot and smuggling drugs.

After the underground but way before Alan Moore, came the new wave comics, Art Speigelman’s avant-garde RAW magazine (Where Charles Burns, Chris Ware and Gary Panter debuted) Robert Crumb's WEIRDO, Daniel Clowes's EIGHTBALL etc. ect., all cartoonists who were primarily influenced by the underground rather than the mainstream. (Charles Burns was also influenced by the E.C. Horror Comics of the 50s.. Tales From The Crypt etc.) I think you’ll find that the first book-length comics narrative (i.e. Graphic Novel) was Spiegelman’s Maus rather than Swamp thing. And Alan Moore actually got his starts in the underground… From Hell was first serialized in the alternative horror anthology Taboo, which featured the work of shockmeister Joe Coleman and Chester Brown (whose work then was more surreal and bizarre as opposed to autobiographical and introspective now) among others.

"and anyway, when did it matter how long an artist took to draw a graphic novel? does taking more time necessarily mean better quality?"

I’m not saying that comics are better because they take a longer time to produce, just more demoralizing for creators. Many of these indy guys labor in obscurity and are mostly lumped into assembly line-produced stuff. One thing you have to remember is that in the industry they have separate inkers, letterers etc. but most of these cartoonists do it all themselves. It takes just too much work to draw a single comic page on your own. I've drawn comics for small press publications myself, and say from personal experience that it takes the phrase 'labor of love' to a whole new level.

seriously, i think some of the artwork done by those u call "industry hacks" are far better than some of the "alternative" work out there.

IMO I’ve much more artistic innovation in altcomics than mainstream ones (which is remarkable considering the confinement in workmanship and finances they are working in) But to each their own anyway. An analogy: You could argue that most high-profile bands have better production values compared to Steve Albini-produced stuff, and you’d be right but there’s no doubt as of which has a more individualistic sound (the quality and value judgments are subjective) It’s like apples and oranges really.

Okay... that was a long rant... anyway it's always nice to talk to a fellow comics enthusiast.... thanks! Peace.

counterrestrial said...

"the same goes for novels. does taking a longer time to write mean a better book?"

Okay, addressing this interesting subject you've brought up... The answer is of course, no. In fact, I personally, I feel that the more intuitive, spontaneous and free-flowing the approach is, the better the work is.

For novels, a huge amount of reader interaction is involved, as the reader recreates what they read about in their head. They have to use their imagination to fill in the little details that aren't described to them, thus novels have an internalized quality to them that comics don't immediately have. This opens the writer to all sorts of strange and visceral approaches to their writings as they are not confined to the literal, we have free-form cut-and-paste experimentation of Naked Lunch and the narrative superimposition of Ulysses. This is not to say that cartoonists are unable to achieve as much as innovation as writers, they have to approach it in a different way because their langauge is more visual.

I guess this is why comics that are elaborately and painstakingly constructed aren't the best medium for internalized/stream of consciousness narratives and so forth... To achieve this one has to utilize the comics language to evoke intangible ideas (feelings, moods etc) Such artists must rely on the picture's expressionistic qualities rather than their literal, what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of illustration popularized in the mainstream. A good example of this kind of expressionism in comics would be David B's autobiographical GN "Epileptic", which uses a lot of abstraction, wavy lines and angular shapes to represent the emotions of the characters. Art that veers towards the likes of Pollock, Twombly and Dubuffet rather than Da Vinci and the classisists are drawn in that way because they focus on the expression rather than the subject/form. The same goes for the seemingly primitive art of Gary Panter, Savage Pencil, Marjane Satrapi etc. The artwork may be cruder than industry work, but it is more potent.

Kamal S said...

While we're at it, the best fiction with a lil' bit of graphic presentation would be JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER'S EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE. Was not eligible for last year's NBA and Pulitzer. Great read!

The Visitor said...

wow, that IS a long reply.

anyway, i was trying to demonstrate that respectability gradually came to comics when folks like Moore started pushing the mainstream into a whole new level. otherwise, the underground would have remained "underground", so to speak. but respectability and exposure and visibility were probably tenfold after that. ppl took notice, ppl who normally don't give a rat's ass about any other "alternative" form of comicbooks.

as for the first book-length graphic novel, it's hard to say. becos personally, i would give credit to even some of the mini-series and annuals that came out of Marvel and DC in the early days. in the 80s, the mainstream publishers began releasing long-form work in one go, rather than serialise them first, and the term "graphic novel" was already being used. Maus, meanwhile, was serialised between 1980 and 1990.

but if you take it in terms of long-form IDEA rather than long-form BOOK in the physical sense, then i guess you could say Maus was first.

counterrestrial said...

"i was trying to demonstrate that respectability gradually came to comics when folks like Moore started pushing the mainstream into a whole new level"

Yes, you're right... A lot has to be credited to Moore for exposure, he was the most consistent and accomplished creator in American comics during its prime. But Art Spiegelman was the guy who really started pushing the concept of comics as 'high' art and literature, he's always been an outspoken promoter of the comics medium, wherelse I've always regarded Moore as an independent visionary who kept himself busy writing great stories rather than appointing himself a spokesperson for the medium (as Spiegelman did). It's a bit ironic as Spiegelman has produced far less work than Moore though. I personally don't think he's created anything notable before or after MAUS ("In The Shadow of Two Towers" was extremely trite and pretentious.) but credit must be given to him as an editor and pioneer in this regards. And his overall oeuvre nonwithstanding, it remains that MAUS is a singularly accomplished, groundbreaking work, a landmark in literature as well as comics.

"but if you take it in terms of long-form IDEA rather than long-form BOOK in the physical sense, then i guess you could say Maus was first."

Yeah, that's where I was getting at. Of course the nature of which was the first graphic novel is a subject of contention... Some people also attribute Will Eisner to creating the book-length narrative (he did coin the term 'Graphic Novel', of course)... And what about those Tintin albums? Weren't they graphic novels too?

"While we're at it, the best fiction with a lil' bit of graphic presentation would be JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER'S EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE."

Yeah, that's why I used him my analogy about authors winning comics award in my first post... Safran Foer is like the opposite of Chip Kidd. He's a great writer who just happens to be a talented graphic designer as well, Chip Kidd is a great graphic designer who happens to be a telented writer (The Cheese Monkey).

The Visitor said...

holy crap, ur right! i forgot about Tintin!

hey, i didnt know Eisner coined the term!

Spot said...

Dizzy from trying to digest the very interesting exchange above...

For now though, I wanna come out and shake my pom-poms for MAUS.

Sharon, if you had to choose btwn Watchmen or Maus, you MUST read Maus. Hands down.

I think everyone, particularly the attention-span-deficient younger generation shd read it.

Art Spiegelman presents the horrors of the Holocaust in a most groundbreakingly accessible manner - 1) it's in graphic form. 2)the characters are ... depersonalised (think Animal Farm).

The graphic medium caters to any aversion to long chapters of "serious" text. The manner of illustration allows the reader to filter out depressing reality (one of the reasons why so many people don't bother with pressing issues or history is 'cos - it's too depressing, too complex).

And the storytelling...gripping.

History should never be forgotten.

The Visitor said...

wat i wana know is, are there any graphic novels in the vein of Maus, but about the Palestinians?

sympozium said...

You can get something set in Iran by Marlene Satrapi - Persepolis Vol 1 and Persepolis Vol 2. About a girl growing up in Iran during the revolution.

The Visitor said...

i already bought that. and i got them at Times warehouse, CHEAP!

i was so happy.

sympozium said...

So did I!

The Visitor said...

cool!

counterrestrial said...
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counterrestrial said...

Visitor... also get Joe Sacco's book, Palestine, with a forward by the late Edward W. Said. It's more journalistic and less autobiographical than Persepolis though, drawn based on Sacco's experience from spending two month in the Occupied Territories doing interviews, living with Palestinians and so forth. It's a great comics documentry:

http://www.fantagraphics.com/artist/sacco/sacco.html

"The graphic medium caters to any aversion to long chapters of "serious" text."

True, but for me what was particularly interesting about Maus's graphic novel format was exemplified in the chapeter 'Time flies' where Spiegelman deconstructs all his metaphors, changing people into people wearing mouse masks, and depicting Arthur shrinking into an insecure little kid... I don't think you could do that in any other medium but a visual one.

bibliobibuli said...

*sits back and tries to take it all in*

amir said...

Maus this, Maus that.

Actually, we have some interesting historical comics coming out from Malaysia in the 80s.

I remember owning a copy of Zubair Ibnu Awam under a series for Muslim warriors.

Since it is wrong to draw the Prophets and the four great caliphs, they replace the characters with floating balls of light.

There were also pulp medieval sci-fi and horror like Si Tandor which *ehem* 'borrows' a lot from classic Western literature, setting the story in old school Melaka sultanate and other medieval periods.

I remember a story in which one great keris-wielding villain was revealed to be an android, made by a renowned blacksmith who is way, way before his time.

And stories about deals with the devil are quite common.

I also remember the sex scenes and drawn pictures of young women in various states of dishabille.

These days, Malaysian comics are not as memorable. Most of our marketable artists now find themselves plying their trade overseas.

Tan Eng Huat drew Doom Patrol and Batman. Milx, Chee, Adijin and Sunder do work for various studios and publishers including Marvel, Boom Studios, IDW, Dark Horse, Image.

The Visitor said...

man, all this discussion is making me want to go buy a truckload of graphic novels.

bibliobibuli said...

amir - so interesting ... so much i know nothing about ...