Every week in a new installment of “Leading Questions”, the young, lantern jawed Publisher of Comics Bulletin Mark Stack will ask Co-Managing Editor Chase Magnett a question he must answer. However, Mark doesn’t plan on taking it easy on Chase. He’ll be setting him up with questions that are anything but fair and balanced to see how this once overconfident comics critic can make a cogent case for what another one obviously wants to hear.
So without any further ado…
What’s the deal with autobio comics that makes some people dismiss them?
Well Mark, I think I can explain this with a funny anecdote. Last year at SPX I was hanging out with two other Comics Bulletin contributors Daniel Elkin and Keith Silva. We had gotten a late start to the day and really needed to get something to eat before hitting the floor. So we ran across the street to a McDonald’s to snag some coffee and breakfast burritos. Now the thing you have to understand about what happened next is that Silva is from Vermont and Bernie Sanders was just starting to blow up at the time…
Is anyone still with me?
If you are, then I think the point is pretty clear. My life, with very few exceptions, is not terribly exciting to anyone besides myself. No offense, but if you’re reading this column, I’ll put some money down that says the same thing applies to you.
Your job, romantic relationships, and hobbies are all terribly exciting to you because they create your life. The people who share that life, your friends and family, might find it interesting too because they are sharing in your life. However, to a stranger on the street or, more probably, in a bookstore, what are the odds of that funny story from a convention or a rough breakup being of particular interest?
This isn’t to say that autobiography and memoir aren’t genres worthy of exploration and interest. There are plenty of great autobio comics proving the opposite; Maus is regularly held up as the high point of the medium. The strip at the top of this column is from Adrian Tomine’s Scenes From An Impending Marriage; it’s a little book from a master cartoonist that I appreciate more every day this year. However, I think all of that goes a long way in explaining why there are so many bad autobio comics and how that leads to a general dismissal of the genre.
I believe that creation is often an act of ego. In order to make something and believe it should be shared with the world, you have to think what you make has value to strangers. We know that comics and all forms of art can possess this sort of value, but there’s a difference between recognizing potential and thinking you’ve achieved it. Calvin & Hobbes is a comic that changed how people view a medium and the world around them, but what makes you think your strip should elicit the time and money of others? That may sound discouraging, but it’s something to consider before asking others to pay for what you create: What are you doing that is special?
Something like Calvin & Hobbes has an easily expressed hook and a higher concept that really sings. Genre fiction and more vaguely defined literary works in comics typically come with both of these levels of understanding. They have a compelling narrative and a consequential theme. That’s painting in very broad strokes, but it applies across a wide swath of the canvas that is comics. However, I would say that most autobio comics fail on one, if not both of these levels.
We’ve already touched on the idea that most everyday lives are not incredibly fascinating by themselves. What we find to be incredibly funny or heartbreaking only works within the context of our lives that we occupy 24 hours everyday. In order to evoke those same sorts of compelling narratives in a comic, creators have to recontextualize their own existence and evaluate how and why it happens. Essentially, you have to remove yourself from your story in order to understand your story. That’s not an easy thing to do and relies upon the ability to remove some form of ego from the equation.
If you can do that much, then you have to discover what makes it matter and how readers should respond to the lessons of your own life. This is an even more brutal exercise as it involves recognizing one’s failures and faults in a very honest fashion. Anything short of that will be an attempt to paint a glamorized or romanticized portrait, which will fail simply for being false.
There are a lot of pitfalls in autobio comics, and I don’t want to get into the million ways they can go wrong. Let’s leave it at this: It’s a lot easier to be honest when writing fiction or reflecting on history that lies outside yourself. Assuming you even do have a story worth telling, finding the truth of that story is a brutal process with none of the benefits that come from other genres.
It’s hard to compose a concept for a good autobio comic, much less actually make it well.
But what is all of this really saying? Well, it’s that making art is hard. It’s really, incredibly, insanely difficult. It doesn’t matter whether you’re working in autobio or high fantasy, comics or film, your bedroom or a massive corporation. Art is an arduous undertaking, and no matter how you pursue your craft you will encounter innumerable problems and struggles.
The choice to make art about your own life is no less brave than choosing to tell a story about men and women dressing up in tights to punch bank robbers. Scratch that. It’s 100% more brave than that other thing. Everything I’ve said so far about it being incredibly difficult to assess your own narrative and why it matters only makes that more true.
Whether or not the creator of an autobio comic fails in achieving their intended goals or creating something that strikes a chord with a wider audience is inconsequential to very act of what they are doing. That’s why I would say the dismissiveness towards autobio comics is somewhat unfair. There is nothing inherently flawed about the genre or the people working within it. They face a steeper climb than many others, but that doesn’t make the pursuit any less noble.
And the total amount of crap to be discovered within autobio isn’t exactly out of bounds for how we might dissect any genre or medium when looking for crap. It’s a perfect example of when to apply Sturgeon’s Law. This is the old adage, previously referenced in this column, that ninety percent of everything is crap. When we look at autobio comics, we find lots of examples of crap, but that doesn’t make it unique.
Pick up a stack of autobio comics, a stack of superhero comics, and a stack of horror comics, and I bet you’ll find pretty similar ranges of quality. Some will have noteworthy facets, some will be thoroughly enjoyable, a few may even move you, but most will be tossed back into the stack to be forgotten. There’s really nothing inherently less valuable about autobio comics, as they have all of the same potential as any other set of images placed on a page together and called comics.
The only thing that really distinguishes them and, perhaps, lessens them in the eyes of the comics audience is their universality. Like I said at the very start of this ramble, we all live lives that are mostly boring. When we see someone else telling us about their boring day, we are more inclined to think “I could do that” because we see our own boring days in their story. Throw some red underwear or a cape on that character and give them someone to punch and this connection is gone. Those things don’t make for a better comic though, they just make for one that is more distanced.
Thinking that we could do what the creator of an autobio comic is doing is no more true than that of the creator of any other comic. We can all pick up a pencil or brush and get to work. But the person trying to tell their story, whether it’s the tale of their day or the adventures of a masked man, is doing it. It may turn out to be terrible, but those are the breaks. That shouldn’t stop us from admiring the bravery it takes to simply stand up and offer that part of themselves to the world, hoping one of us might find value in it.