Friday, November 12, 2004

A nice little piece about comic artists

I wrote an article published today about comic artists coming to Austin for the New Yorker College Tour. Normally I'd have a link to the published article, but due to the constraints of the publication (grumble, grumble, resigned sigh) my article had to be edited down to half of the intended length. So, I'll post the original version of the article with the two illustrations that should have accompanied it. I had fun writing it (I've never used five sources for an article before), I hope you enjoy reading it.

New Yorker brings graphic art to Austin

“Comics? That’s kid’s stuff.” When people’s only experience with comics has been short superhero stories written with a younger audience in mind, the sentiment is inevitable. For those who’ve dug a little deeper though, there is a world of great art and nuanced stories.

The superhero comic market has cooled over the past decade, but interest has grown in long form comics called graphic novels. The last few years have seen a surge of sales for beautiful, thoughtful work from Chris Ware (Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth), Craig Thompson (Blankets), Daniel Clowes (Ghost World, David Boring) and others.

Juan Segarra at Funny Papers in the Dobie Mall has seen a 40 percent increase in sales. Looking to increase exposure, he moved them up to the front of the store, a strategy that worked.
“People are coming in who refer to them as graphic novels,” Segarra says. “People who otherwise wouldn’t be in a comic shop. They’re more accepted in the mainstream. People are thinking of them as actual literature.”

Graphic novels are now widely available in both independent and chain bookstores that don’t carry traditional monthly comics. And it’s not just retail outlets that carry these works. The UT Austin library system has a solid collection of distinguished work.

“Anytime there’s a new genre or format that enters the field of publication…we’re interested in looking to see if that’s something that the library should acquire,” explains Lindsey Schell, bibliographer for English Literature, “We’ve had a lot of requests from individuals for specific titles as well as just beefing up the collection in general.”

There’s no consensus on why graphic novels have gained in popularity. Increased media attention, high-quality work and better availability have all contributed, but there is no single controlling factor.

“I think culturally there’s been a build up of things that have let it into the eyes of people that have work in the media,” observes artist Seth (Palookaville, Clyde Fans: Book 1), “The Crumb documentary, Ghost World, American Splendor, there’s a cultural awareness rising out of comics that there’s something hot going on.”

A veteran of the field, Seth is a little wary about the sudden boom.

“[I]t’s a trendy thing at the moment. It’s something the public could really embrace, but I’m not sure whether I totally trust the attention at the moment.”

Fellow artist Adrian Tomine (Optic Nerve, Summer Blonde) worries about the downside of the trend.

“A broader acceptance of comics as a legitimate art form is heartening, but it hasn't changed the way I work,” he says. “There’s…a sudden rush in the publishing world to put out graphic novels and, unfortunately, I don't think there's enough quality material to meet the demand. I'm fearing a backlash as a result of a sub-par graphic novel glut.”

Prestige work

Comic artists have worked for years illustrating outside their own publications. Now, their working worlds are merging.

“The people I worked for weren’t really aware of my comics work,” says Seth, “They just knew me as an illustrator. In the last couple years, more and more I’m getting hired because of the comics work. People are aware of the work and so they’re hiring me for jobs that are more appropriate for what I do.”

Chief among those is The New Yorker magazine. It’s a natural match for a magazine that’s held cartoonist in high regard for at least half a century.

“We’re always looking for new artists,” explains Illustration editor Owen Phillips, “Comic book artist’s [are people] who can imagine their way around a space in a room. If they’re illustrating a movie, they’re not stuck on the photos the way some illustrator’s can be. I know that they can build on the reference and make it their own while adding atmosphere to it.”

Tonight in Austin, The New Yorker College Tour is highlighting the work of graphic novelists through “Ray Guns and Moping,” a panel featuring Seth, Tomine, and Gary Panter (Jimbo, Pee Wee’s Playhouse) moderated by Phillips.

Working for The New Yorker has many advantages for artists: paid work, an appreciative audience, a certain prestige.

“I think the New Yorker has a lot of cache to it,” Seth observes, “You can be working for years and if do the cover of the New Yorker, it makes a big difference on the way people perceive your work after that. It does have a stamp of approval to it.”

Phillips is glad to help.

“If we’re helping them pay their bills a little bit and their true love is their comic books, then they go hand and hand.”

New Yorker College Tour: “Ray Guns and Moping,” an evening with graphic novelists Gary Panter, Seth, and Adrian Tomine, hosted by New Yorker illustration editor Owen Phillips. La Zona Rosa, $10/$5 student discount

Adrian Tomine's cover for The New Yorker
(courtesy of The New Yorker)

Seth's cover for The New Yorker
(courtesy of The New Yorker)

1 comment:

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