"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
It’s frustrating to love comics, because there’s so much cultural baggage that goes along with loving them. The blessing and curse of comics as a medium is that there is such a thing as “comics culture.” The core audience of comics is really into them: we know that Wednesdays are the day when new issues appear in the stores, we populate endless Web sites and message boards, we preserve our comics with some degree of care even if we think of ourselves as “readers” rather than “collectors.” A few times a year, we congregate at conventions of one kind or another. (The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art Festival — which is happening this weekend in New York City — is one of our Sundances, where small-press and independent publishers display their wares; Wizard World Chicago is where the superhero buffs go; Comic-Con International, held in San Diego at the end of July, is where everybody goes.) We gravitate to our kind.
That’s part of the problem. Over the last half century, comics culture has developed as an insular, self-feeding, self-loathing, self-defeating fly-trap. A lot of the people who hit their local comics store every Wednesday think of comics readers as some kind of secret, embattled fellowship. (That’s why most comics stores are deeply unfriendly places: everything about them says, “You mean you don’t know?” In some of them, even new pamphlets and books are sealed in plastic before they go out on the shelves; if you don’t walk into the store knowing what you want, you’re not going to find out.) It’s a poisonous mind-set for any number of reasons, the biggest one being that to enjoy a comic book, you either have to be a Comics Person or be able to explain why you’re not really a Comics Person.
That incestuous relationship between audience and medium has been encouraged by the big comics publishers. Mainstream comics pamphlets that are incomprehensible to anyone not already immersed in their culture aren’t just the standard now; they’re the point. If you pick up a story crammed full of inside references, and you’re enough of an insider to catch them all, you’re going to feel like it was made just for you, and it will intensify the sense of difference between you and “normal people.” (I know from experience; some of the comics I enjoy most are stories I can’t explain to a lot of my friends without using phrases like “pre-Crisis continuity” and “the 616 universe,” sounding severely schizophrenic, or both.)
Then there’s the name-and-class problem — not just the way the wretched term “graphic novel” has come to be a euphemism for “comics,” but the reasons it caught on. The origins of “graphic novel” are slightly murky — it seems to have been first used in the ’60s as a name for a potential “higher” form of comics, and it was popularized by Will Eisner’s 1978 book “A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories.” (As its title suggests, Eisner’s volume is not so much a novel as a collection of four not-all-that-long stories linked by their setting.)
But the “novel” part of “graphic novel” blots out the idea of short fiction and nonfiction — it’s odd to call, say, books of reportage in cartoon form by Joe Sacco and Ted Rall “novels,” or to suggest that memoirs by Alison Bechdel and Harvey Pekar are fictional, or that a collection of short pieces by Ellen Forney or C. Tyler is actually an extended, unified story. Given how long it takes to draw comics, the idea that the “novel” is the default form for the ones with high aspirations is also pernicious, because it suggests that shorter stories can’t be serious. (Working on short fiction or poetry carries about the same prestige as working on a novel, but if you’re drawing comics, that’s not the same thing as working on a graphic novel — which is why too many young cartoonists start in on novel-length pieces before they’ve developed storytelling skills.) “Graphic narrative” sounds like a euphemism twice removed from its source, and still has the unfortunate resonance of “graphic” with the way it tends to be paired with “sexuality” or “violence.” And “sequential art” sounds utterly arid.
The class implications of “graphic novel” almost instantly led to the term’s thorough debasement. As a ten-dollar phrase, it implies that the graphic novel is serious in a way that the lowly comic book isn’t. That, of course, leaves it open to being co-opted by anybody who wants to dress up their inept little drawings in a jacket and tie, which is why shitty forty-eight-page superhero stories started to be sold as “graphic novels” within a few years of the appearance of “A Contract with God” — 1983′s “Super Boxers” could have killed off the prestige of any term attached to the form.
Even so, to this day, people talk about “graphic novels” instead of comics when they’re trying to be deferential or trying to imply that they’re being serious. There’s always a bit of a wince and stammer about the term; it plays into comics culture’s slightly miserable striving for “acknowledgment” and “respect.” It’s hard to imagine what kind of cultural capital the American comics industry (and its readership) is convinced that it’s due and doesn’t already have. Perhaps the comics world has spent so long hating itself that it can’t imagine it’s not still an underdog. But demanding (or wishing for) a place at the table of high culture is an admission that you don’t have one; the way you get a place at the table of high culture is to pull up a chair and say something interesting.
So what do people who are committed to feeling like embattled outsiders do? Fetishize the object that symbolizes their difference from everybody else, naturally. The first wave of comics collectors were trying to preserve the past of their culture — to rescue the ephemeral pamphlets that made up comics’ fragile history from the quick and sure destruction they were intended for. They wanted to hold on to the pleasure their favorite comics gave them, and perhaps to understand how years’ worth of stories about particular characters might fit together into a grander narrative than even those stories’ creators imagined. There’s something honorable about that.
The preservation impulse turned into a collector’s impulse — what was once called “the nostalgia market.” Uncommon issues, naturally, were worth a bit more, then a lot more, then became the object of speculation. Publishers started to play on the idea of collectibility (in 1965, Marvel launched a series reprinting comics that had been published less than four years earlier, “Marvel Collectors’ Item Classics”). And people started to hoard new comics with an eye to their future financial value, not the future pleasure to be had from owning them.
There was once a kind of nerdy charm to the collectors who sought out old comics in “pristine mint” condition — cover still glossy, no dings or dents on the spine — and valued them according to their historical importance as well as their condition. First appearances of favorite characters were in high demand, and so were issues with well-loved artists, and a few more specialized kinks. “The Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide,” updated annually, singled out horror comics involving the “injury-to-eye motif,” for instance.
Sometime in the ’80s, though, there started to be collectors who cared only about the investment potential of their comics and didn’t have any particular interest in reading them. I worked in a comic book store in the mid-’80s, and I loathed the customers who came up to the counter with their own plastic bags and acid-free cardboard backing boards to begin the process of preserving their investments right away. It was easy to spot the kids who would become those collectors, too: they’d look quizzically at the first issue of some new series, and ask, “What’s this going to be worth?” (I always told them that if I knew what things were going to be worth, I probably wouldn’t be working behind a counter.)
No one ever really made their fortune as a comics investor, but the legions of clueless speculators brought on a few boom-and-bust cycles in the industry. The comics speculation game got a slightly disgusting twist in 2001, with the launch of Comic Guaranty LLC and “slabbing.” CGC, as it’s better known, grades collectible comics for condition on a ten-point scale, then seals them between hard plastic slabs, so that they can never risk being damaged — or read-again: perfect financial fetish objects, entirely severed from their original aesthetic purpose.
That’s the sort of protective response that’s arguably appropriate for a singular object whose meaning as art can be experienced through clear plastic — something with what Walter Benjamin called “aura.” There’s something almost parodically wrong about seeing a piece of mass-produced entertainment framed like an irreproducible original. Naturally, the art-comics world mostly thinks of CGC and comics investment as beneath contempt — one piece of industry slang is “FYOV,” the “forty-year-old virgins” who fuel the collector market. (It was around long before the movie.)
At the same time, even within art comics, there’s a longing for the medium to get more of something that’s usually called “legitimacy.” There’s an element of comics culture, sometimes called (a little derisively) “Team Comics,” that gets excited whenever anything that looks like that acknowledgment or respect I mentioned above turns up in the outside world — a college class on the graphic novel, a Hollywood movie based on a graphic novel, a newspaper or magazine article about a cartoonist, somebody reading a comic book on a TV show. Different segments of Team Comics take notice if a TV character is reading a new issue of “Aquaman” or Lynda Barry’s “One!Hundred!Demons!,” but the principle is the same.
Both the “Team Comics” culture vultures and the alternate-cover-hoarding mavens are driven by the desire to turn their hobby into some kind of success or validation, whether through affluence or cultural power, and that impulse is directly connected to the class aspirations that afflict the entire medium. A lot of comics readers are unhealthily attached to the idea that everyone else thinks what they do is kind of trashy and disreputable, and that they have to prove their favorite leisure activity worthy of respect — to show the world that they were right all along.
It’s probably time to let go of that strain of earnest defensiveness. The snobbery of the rest of American culture toward comics is, if not entirely gone, dissipating quickly. In late 2006, Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel “American Born Chinese” was nominated for a National Book Award (in the Young People’s Literature category); when one commentator — Tony Long, a blogger at Wired News — opined that it shouldn’t have been nominated because it wasn’t prose, the comics world jumped down his throat. But it’s not as if literary culture revolted as one: Long appears to have been the only voice of dissent, and as clueless as part of his argument was (he noted that, well, he hadn’t actually read “American Born Chinese”), his point that Yang’s book was the wrong medium for its award was at least debatable.
What’s actually happening in culture at large is more like everyone trying to jump on the comics bandwagon — as a 2004 New Yorker cartoon’s caption put it, “Now I have to pretend to like graphic novels, too?” The medium’s new enemies are internal: the much less casual snobbery of the commercial mainstream and the art-comics world toward each other, and cartoonists’ nostalgic yearning for the badness of the bad old days. Reading only auteurist art comics is like being a filmgoer who watches only auteurist art cinema, but more than a few art-comics enthusiasts wouldn’t dream of picking up a mainstream comic book, even as entertainment. Likewise, plenty of superhero buffs can’t imagine being interested in some actionless black-and-white independent comic.
The most frustrating effect of the art/pop divide in comics, though, is nostalgie de la boue. A lot of the best cartoonists of the moment have picked up their visual vocabulary from the crap and hackwork of the past, and they’re fondly and unhealthily attached to it in a sentimental, self-loathing way, as a curdled by-product of the attachment they felt to it as children. You can find this fascination with the feeble, uninspired comics of the artists’ youth in Chris Ware’s “Rusty Brown,” in Dan Clowes’s “Ice Haven” and “Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron,” in Ivan Brunetti’s “Misery Loves Comedy,” and in a lot of other art comics, and it’s an utter drag. Robert Crumb is a particular offender: most of his early work riffed on the toothless pop culture of his youth, and his drawing and sense of humor still haven’t entirely let go of fifty-year-old issues of “MAD.”
In mainstream comics, nostalgie de la boue manifests itself as stories whose main point is to trigger nostalgic responses in their older readers — forgotten Golden Age characters being trotted out again and integrated into the tapestry of continuity; “retcons,” or “retroactive continuity,” meant to explain apparent contradictions in old comics or draw connections where there hadn’t been any intended in the first place. The inbred children of that approach are stories nostalgic for old retcons, attempts to recapture the past of attempting to recapture the past, even if it wasn’t that good the first time and was even worse the second.
Nostalgia, especially nostalgia for childhood, is a heavy burden for a medium to bear, and comics have been carrying it since the culture around them began to coalesce. The comics collecting market was called the “nostalgia market” at first; The Comics Journal was renamed from The Nostalgia Journal. The earliest books of essays about comic books were collections like “All in Color for a Dime” — reminiscences of early childhood experiences with funnybooks. As far as thinking about what makes comics interesting, though, nostalgia is poison — not just because it makes people overvalue the stories that fueled their childhood fantasies but because it makes them misunderstand the reasons why the good stuff or even the resonant crap affected them so strongly, and what exactly might have been messed up about it, or the way it made them feel the first time around.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)