Thursday, March 5, 2009

What We Read and How

Like it or not, I seem to have gotten caught up in all the advance publicity and previewing of Watchmen. However, what has interested me the most is a comment, documented by Sukhdev Sandhu in his review of the film for the London Telegraph, by Alan Moore, creator of the twelve-part comic book series on which the movie is based. Moore asked for his name to be taken off the credits. Sandhu offered the following remark he had previously made as a possible justification:

My book is a comic book. Not a movie. It’s been made in a certain way, and designed to be read in a certain way: in an armchair, nice and cosy next to a fire, with a steaming cup of coffee.

I do not know much about Moore beyond the background material I have encountered for Watchmen, but I like to think that I know a fair amount about reading. Regular readers know that I read all sorts of stuff, and comic books have figured significantly in my reading experiences. Regular readers probably also know that I view "experiences" in terms of how they help us form our perceptual categories; and in this case my own ontology now draws a distinction between "comic book" and "graphic novel," which Moore may or may not share with me. One thing, however, is certain: I have never read a comic book "in an armchair, nice and cosy next to a fire, with a steaming cup of coffee!" I have in my time read both fiction and nonfiction in such a setting. I might even acknowledge that, should I decide to take on any product of the recent effort to turn Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past into graphic novel, the scene Moore has envisaged might be the most suitable (substituting tea for coffee and adding a plate of madeleines, of course). However, even the comic books from the old Classic Comics series just do not fit with that setting.

A real comic book has a pulpy nature that, however serious the content may be, tends to defy the sedate. When I worked at the student radio station at MIT, we had a ratty old couch that was the preferred setting for the consumption of Marvel Comics. I offer that couch as a paradigm for reading comics (possibly including the Coke machine on the other side of the room). It could hold three readers sitting side-by-side (each reading a different comic) or (when conditions were right) a single reader stretched out across the length of the couch. I suppose that the pulp is only part of the story. The other is that the setting should do justice to the "comic," which is not the same as the "literary humor" of a Max Beerbohm or even a Douglas Adams.

I fear that Moore may want us to think about his comic book in terms of the "pleasure of the text" (generalizing the concept of "text" to include the images); but the semiotic high-mindedness of a Roland Barthes just does not sit very well with comic books. The pleasure is in the reading; and, to a great extent, it is a guilty pleasure. That is what makes the experience comic, rather than merely humorous; the sense of raw fun trumps the appreciation of wit (even when wit is a critical element of the comic book, as in so many of the Marvel products). Moore needs to take himself less seriously and reject the pleasure of the text for the pleasure of the sprawl!

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