Sunday, August 14, 2011

Comic Lists Gone Bad - The Sacco Omission

All the world loves a list: Top 10s, Top 5s, Top 50s, it doesn't really matter how you number them.

In fact, for magazines they are go-to sales boosters, and for web periodicals they are traffic drivers.

But sometimes lists go wrong. Witness, for example, Kirstin Butler's "Comic Books as Journalism: 10 Masterpieces of Graphic Nonfiction" for The Atlantic.

The first red flag comes when you try to figure out what qualifies Butler to rank such a list. Her bio states that she "is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs." While her project may be very good, there is nothing about it that suggests she is any way an expert in, or even particularly knowledgeable of, comics journalism.

Then there is the list itself.
1. The Beats by Harvey Pekar/various
2. Edible Secrets by Michael Hoerger / Mia Paltrow / Nate Powell
3. A.D.: New Orleans After The Deluge by Josh Neufeld
4. The 14th Dalai Lama by Tetsu Saiwai
5. The Stuff Of Life by Mark Schultz / Zander Cannon
6. Smartercomics Business Books by various
7. The Influencing Machine by Brooke Gladstone/Josh Neufeld
8. The Photographer by Emmanuel Guibert / Didier Lefevre / Frederic Lemercier
9. Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle
10. The Elements of Style Illustrated by Maira Kalman / William Strunk / E. B. White
The list contains some very good reads. In fact, I have recommended many of these books myself to people.

But here's the problem, several of those books are, technically speaking, not journalism. They may be non-fiction, but that is not the same as "journalism".

What's more, any list of great comics journalism has to, at the very least, contain (I'd argue both start with and contain a lot of) Joe Sacco. And specifically, such a list needs to include Palestine.

So why did Butler pass on Sacco? She feared controversy.

In the comments section, several people pointed out her omission. One such person was Josh Neufeld, the author/artist of 2 books on the list.
hcduvall: This is a pretty good list, with a few that I was unfamiliar with and now would like to check out...but while I hate to sound like one of those fans, I'm amazed there's no work by Joe Sacco here. He's got to start every list of comic nonfiction.

Josh Neufeld: Agreed! I wouldn't have ever embarked on a comics journalism career without his inspiration and influence
Her response?
Butler: You guys are right--I almost included Footnotes in Gaza but chickened out at the last moment because the topic is so polarizing. I was already expecting heat from rank-and-file fanboys/girls about the overall list and didn't want to brave the Palestine question as well.
But as designer Stefan Sagmeister once said to an editor who asked him to tone down an illustration, this work is graphic, and that's precisely its purpose. Should I write another roundup, Sacco won't be missing from it.
So she didn't include Sacco because she was afraid of the supposed controversial nature of his work? What? Is reactionary bullying so pervasive and successful it results in the sort of self-censorship that it is now undermining comics? Or at least, lists of comics? In The Atlantic?

It's ironic that Butler quotes Sagmeister's refusal to compromise as a defense for her own compromised list. But unfortunately, any list that makes omissions based on fear is ultimately worthless.

And what's more, Ms. Butler discusses her concern about responses from "rank-and-file fanboys/girls". Fanboys don't bicker about comics journalism, fanboys argue about who would win in a fight, Captain America or Batman (for the record, the correct answer is Batman. The correct answer is always Batman).

This post is not a fanboy response, despite her attempt at pre-dismissal of such criticism, it's a legitimate critique of a flawed list that purports to present 10 masterpieces of comics journalism in The Atlantic (and rerun on The Huffington Post).

Again, there are some very good reads on Butler's list. No question about it. But under the self-imposed parameters of comics journalism, it utterly fails. Butler and The Atlantic can do better.

2 comments:

Sean Gallagher said...

Joe Sacco's Palestine and his Bosnia books should be required reading.

sweetney said...

Hey! Great talk last night - and still looking forward to your recommended reading list!