Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Don't Believe the Truth

Tom Brevoort gets it right:

I feel like I keep reading the same scenes, the same exchanges and conflicts, the same false drama over and over again. It's time to set the bar a bit higher for ourselves. Time to rededicate ourselves to illuminating those truths of character, to digging down deeper, probing the characters, turning them over and over and figuring out what makes them tick, why we're fascinated by them, and then placing them in situations that reveal new facets-and, by extension, new facets of ourselves.

It's the point of fiction, you know; the "literary" thing that we keep talking and fretting about. When we get down to it, it's something as pure and simple as... truth.

Not some kind of absolute, objective Truth, but the truth of a scene, a moment, a character.

I'm convinced that everybody, deep down inside, has their own, very accurate bullshit detector for whether a scene in a piece of fiction rings true for them or not, whether they've thought about it a lot or not, whether they realize it or not.

And I think a disproportionate number of comics readers, critics and creators still fail to apply that bullshit detector a lot of the time.

Sure: Comics, as a storytelling form, has come a long way the last ten years or so in particular. In terms of craft, the majority of creators working in the field are leaps and bounds above the guys who were working in the field in 1995. People like, say, Ed Brubaker or Sean Phillips, to name the most obvious examples, have been a godsend in that regard. In terms of structure and panel-to-panel storytelling, the 2000s have been an incredible growth period.

But when it comes to the matter of truth, to having something to say about a given character and gearing everything towards saying it and making it seem like a true story—a story that the reader can believe in not just intellectually but also emotionally—then it seems a lot of people are still not paying attention, no matter whether we're talking about the creative side of things or the critical reception.

Case in point, I just saw A Serious Man.

Let me tell you, that's a pretty smartly constructed, ingeniously told film if I've ever seen one.

But the ending—

—an ending that hits you like a brick, so suddenly and with such raw, instant cathartic force that it literally has to be seen to be believed—

—that ending scene wouldn't have been half as poignant if the story that preceded it hadn't worked so hard at earning it, by being a true story about these characters and their lives that you believe in.

The thing is, I've read a few books and listened to a few songs and seen a few films and watched a few TV shows that have that effect on me; they're not many, but every once in a while, I can expect to find one which has this particular kind of truth.

In comics, though, it's still so rare an exception, evidently, that I can't name a single work off the top of my head that had the same effect on me as that film I just got back from the theater watching.

There are creators who get close, and there are people who know what to look for; but somehow, my impression is that we've still got a long way to go if we want to be any serious competition for other storytelling forms.


Sean T. Collins said...

Off the top of my head:
Jimmy Corrigan
The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Black Hole
The End
Or Else #2
The Acme Novelty Library #19
Ice Haven
Eightball #23

That said, you're right, A Serious Man is a masterpiece.

Daniel said...

I would agree with most of the comics Sean mentioned as having a smiliar qualitiy as "A Serious Man". Yet I am not sure what it is that makes these texts stand out from the rest of narrative porduction in their field. Letting "A Serious Man" pass through my tiny brain once and again after watching the movie, I tried to formulate what fascinated me so much.

I came to realize that it was the high degree of ambivalence in the movie, a constant back and forth between the tragic and the humoresque. Reading Jimmy Corrigan, I am stuck in exactly the same situation, somewhere between laughing and crying out loud. But I am not convinced that this is the closest we come to truth in fiction or if it is just a recent trend in order to go up against established narrative conventions, if it is only a novelty, the newst thing that just takes us by force.

If talking about thruth in fiction I still cling to the fiction of William Gaddis (okay, I just claim that because he is the topic of my dissertation). Instead of just floating between the laughable and the serious, he fragments every single emotion, unfolds a plot without closure (similar to A Serious Man's finale), and mirrors human experience through the lens of the profane.

Although I mentioned that Sean's list provides us with comics that achieve a different level of narration, I am not quite sure if a comic (due to its graphic make-up) is able to evoke such poetic truth as in the works of William Gaddis or the Cohen Brothers. But on the others hand, I still haven't read Dash Shaw's Bottomless Bellybutton.