There are two graphic novels that get mentioned in circles where people do not read graphic novels: Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. These two titles are considered more “literary” than your average comic book fare, and for good reason. Maus did earn a Pulitzer Prize, among other acclaims, and Watchmen is the only graphic novel to receive the Hugo Book Award. The two works are very special, and couldn’t be more different: Maus is a roughly-drawn, black-and-white memoir, while Watchmen is a full-color superhero story with some social commentary. Why, then, do both of these books get bandied about by smarty-pants comic book snobs? You’d think that fans in general would eschew one or the other, being that they are so contrasted. It would be like if your two favorite foods were chocolate and parsley.
The main thing that Watchmen and Maus share is that they’re in their perfect medium: comics. As straight text books they would be too complicated, as cartoons or movies they lose all of their frozen-frame nuances. Maus is primarily the retelling of the author’s father’s experience in Jewish ghettos and concentration camps during the Nazi regime in Europe. He does so by portraying the Jews as mice, the Nazis as cats, and other ethnic groups as various animals. In the second book in this two-part work, the author addresses the reader directly, in human form, but with a mouse mask obscuring his face. This is a gimmick that would not work in written form, it would make absolutely no sense. Watchmen is even better-suited for the comic book format since it is at once a commentary on comic book history and the superhero genre, as well as an engaging narrative about a compelling cast of fictional characters. There is even a comic book within Watchmen, a pirate-themed title called Tales of the Black Freighter, the events of which parallel occurences in the main tale, in (what has since become) traditional Alan Moore style. Indeed, I worried about how this might be handled in the Scott Snyder film version of Watchmen; to have a meta comic within a movie isn’t very meta at all. Happily, they excised it from the movie altogether and instead told only the surface story, leaving the unworkable comic book commentary in the book where it belongs (there was a butchering of Tales of the Black Freighter in horrible cartoon form on some DVD editions, but we can pretend it didn’t happen.)
What interests me is that these two wildly different books get mentioned so often during discussions of the genre. We’re certainly not suffering from a dearth of graphic novels, high-falutin’ or otherwise. The obvious answer is that these were two of the first graphic novels to treat the genre seriously–not the first, but two of the first (he wrote, trying to stave off a lot of angry comments by comic book nerds). These books came out in the 1980s, which is an important decade for comic books for two reasons: one is that the model for comics distribution changed so that publishers could ship books directly to comic book stores. This affected comics because it connected the fan base more securely to publishers, who were no longer jockeying for position on the same racks that carried People magazine and Newsweek. But the other thing that happened in the 1980s, the thing I believe is more profound than and may have contributed greatly to the creation of a direct distribution model, is that baby boomers entered the middle class en masse, and started to pine for their younger days when they’d read Silver Age comic books, safely nestled in their nuclear fallout bunkers and dreaming of Russian space dogs. Or something like that. My father, one of the aforementioned baby boomers, had tomes upon tomes collecting various comic books and comic strips from his childhood, and throughout my time growing up would regularly bring home newer editions. It didn’t occur to me, at the time, that I was seeing something relatively new and unique to my parents’ generation, who had grown up squirreling comics in the bottom of their clothes closet, only to have them thrown away by mom during freshman year away at college. For my part, this reference material gave me the opportunity to learn about Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend and EC’s The Vault of Horror. I was able to read an entire year’s worth of Popeye comic strips, then put that aside to look at the origin issue of Plastic Man.
As mentioned before, I don’t buy “floppy” comic books, I prefer the collected trade editions and standalone graphic novels when it comes to my panel stories. I think this is partially owed to the fact that there were so many comic book books around my house when I was a kid, it never occurred to me that it might be weird to own and pursue such things. My dad is very literate, always reading two and often three beefy books at a time, but that doesn’t stop him from poring lovingly over old issues of Donald Duck or the collected Barney Google strips. I think that this is a somewhat modern mindset: many of my peers do the same as I do, ignoring floppy comics and waiting patiently for them to appear as inevitable trade editions. So you might see me reading The Epic of New York City on the subway, or you might see me reading Vertigo’s Preacher comic series. Arguing whether or not comic books are actual art or should be taken seriously is dead, you either think comics are worthwhile or you don’t. Now the discussion turns to: what are the greatest examples in the medium of notch-bound graphic novels and collected trade editions?
The answer, apparently, is Maus and Watchmen. I’ve recommended these books many times, the former for people who have never read a comic book or any sequential art beyond the Peanuts comic strip, and the latter for people who have fodt memories of reading funnybooks as a kid, but haven’t so much as cracked the four-color cover of a comic in decades. Each seems to serve its purpose, both books routinely impress their readers. In fact, the persistence of these titles as viable books is a testament to their validity. You can go back and read the first issues of Spider-Man and learn of his origins, his awkward teenage gawkiness and struggle to use his powers wisely. But you could never appreciate these comics without the context of their production. Watchmen and Maus, both works fixed in specific times and real places, endure long after we stopped giving a shit about The New Teen Titans and their decidedly yuppie angst. Which is the better title? That’s impossible to say, for while they can be compared on basis of genre, they can’t be compared on many other levels. For the purposes of this essay, I’ll say Watchmen is the better book, because it is printed in color. Take that, Spiegelman.