Recently, Jonathan Jones of The Guardian called out modern-day comic book artists for being “banal”, “unenthusiastic”, “dull”, and, at best, “merely serviceable” in their art and expression. According to him, comic book artists have forgotten that they are in fact artists meant to test the limits of the medium and have strayed too far from such celebrated artists as Alan Moore, Joe Sacco, Robert Crumb, and, most bizarrely, William Hogarth, an 18th-century English satirist most known for his engravings. Evidently, modern comics have entered a dark period.
Such an opinion is, quite frankly, bullshit, especially if you’ve been reading any of the nonfiction comics that have come out in the past twenty or so years. In Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science, French cartoonist Philippe Squarzoni uses his considerable skill in portraiture and layout to turn a 400-plus page tome about climate change into an intellectually terrifying visual delight.
Canaan White, the illustrator of Max Brooks’ historical fiction Harlem Hellfighters, chose to create in black and white, rendering emotion more stark and profound while increasing the impact of certain scenes through his keen sense of direction.
Guy Delisle, the creator of Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea and Jerusalem, uses simple lines, minimalistic backgrounds, and caricature to make more accessible the horror of totalitarian and martial regimes that reduce their citizens to pawns.
Lucy Knisley, a rising cartoonist who has recently published a two-part travelogue, Age of License and Displacement, experiments with layout to allow the reader to experience the anxiety and uncertainty of a questioning young adult.
Craig Thompson also uses layout to express uncertainty, displacement, and spiritual awakening while simultaneously varying his line work to draw the reader to emotional heights.
Nate Powell is currently illustrating Representative John Lewis’ trilogy March, and it is his use of light, space, and perspective that are making Representative Lewis’ words so powerful, so insightful, and so inspiring.
Need I go on, or do you finally have to good pull list, Mr. Jones?
The fact of the matter is that comic book art is changing and undergoing experimentation of a type almost unseen in the past 100 years. On one end, you do have more minimalistic artists like Scott McCloud, Liz Prince, and Raina Telgemeier. On the opposite spectrum, you have the wild, almost uncontainable art of Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre’s Amanda Conner, the inestimable Craig Thompson, and Deadly Class’ Wes Craig. Boom!, Image, The New 52’s Harley Quinn series, and Batman: Li’l Gotham are all experimenting with style mixtures, character designs, coloring, layout, and subject matter in a welcome change from DC and Marvel’s rigid, formulaic house style.
Then we have the new focus on story as opposed to art – which is where you find the minimalistic artists and nonfiction comics. No longer is the purpose of comics to entertain, to reel in the same decades-old fans, or to give people what you’ve already seen that they like. No, now artists and publishers are taking a chance to educate their readers, to make them more informed citizens, and to help them form an emotional connection with the artist and writer. And sometimes, just sometimes, telling a really good story and passing along information means not letting the art interfere with the message. I mean, have you seen Frank Miller’s newest work, Holy Terror? Miller’s obsessive, anal focus on the art and disinterest in the story make it almost unreadable.
It is ironic that Mr. Jones ends his article, “When Did the Comic-book Universe Become So Banal?” by calling modern comics “both pretentious and simplistic” because the only way you could think modern comics banal is by suffering from an overabundance of pretentiousness and simplicity. Maybe instead of telling talented, hardworking artists, writers, publishers, and editors that it’s “Time to go back to the sketchpad,” you should go to your local library and educate yourself. Hogarth is dead, Mr. Jones, but comics still live on.