International

Something struck me in reading this section of a post by Matt Seneca:

There’s a special feeling to being able to trace certain tropes or outlooks through lines of creators and knowing they were the only ones using them, or having a fairly large amount of the most popular stuff be the actual good stuff because it’s tough to throw a lot of money at a failure in this industry and lowest-common-denominator public tastes don’t really enter into it as much as they do in other places. I would have had to go to film school for as much movie history as I have comics, major in literature to know as much about pictureless books. But comics history is small and somewhat self-contained, enough so that I could pick up vast swaths of it working eight-hour shifts in a back issue archive for a couple years.

This is only an introduction to a post about something else, but Seneca’s mention about film school and majoring in literature got me thinking. He basically talks about getting a comics education (well, “vast swaths”) through a back issue archive. To me, I have to read this in such a way that “comics history” equals “American comics books” (and to a lesser extent “American comic strips”). (Note: this is not a slam on Seneca, as he has certainly shown more familiarity with eurocomics, at least, than most other bloggers.)

If you study film or literature in school you’re going to be reading/watching work from an international array of artists. No one studies only American literature, or American film. You couldn’t get through film school without knowing Kurosawa, Godard, or Pasolini. You couldn’t get through a literature degree without reading Flaubert, Cervantes, or Homer. All these arts have a culture of international translation. I’ve got about as many translated books on my shelves as English language originals.

Comics, though, are another story. It’s easy to be considered knowledgable about comics and have no conception of comics from other countries. The poverty of international comics translations is a continuing detriment to a more global understanding of the artform.

Sure, there have been translations of bande dessinee in the past, primarily Franco-Belgian, and there is a lot of manga translated now, but it still doesn’t feel as available as international film and literature. The recent past has seen an increase (over the preceding years) of translated work, but even in this, it seems most of it is coming from a few countries like Japan and France (German comic? Italian comics? Spanish comics? Comics from any country in Africa?) and limited primarily to contemporary work. History is avoided (a testament to this is the lack of (not costly out-of-print) English editions of Pratt or Crepax). It’s sad to me that so much publishing effort has gone into reprinting crappy American comics of the past, but really great work (or at least better work than a lot of said crappy American comics) from other countries is ignored. I realize there are economic conditions at work here and probably rights issues for publishers, but I think it is an ongoing marker of comics lesser status in the world.

One would hope the rise of digital publishing can help this situation. Without the benefit of an American publisher, a publish of bande dessinee could have their books translated and sold as digital editions (I think we’re starting to see this happen with manga publishers now).

I’ve noticed lately, that the more disenchanted I become with larger swaths of American comics, the more pleasure I find in supplementing my reading with works from France (because I can read French, I’d read other countries comics if I could read the language). Some of the best works I’ve read lately have been foreign (like Goblet’s Faire Semblant C’est Mentir or what I’m currently reading Aristophane’s Conte Demoniaque).