Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Van Jensen -- graphic novelist

Van Jensen -- blogger (Graphic Fiction), graphic novelist (Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer), editor/journalist

1. Graphic fiction, we are told, is in; it has arrived. Academics talk about it, literary publishers include it -- sometimes -- on their lists. But how accepted is it really? Is it genuinely accepted by the high-brow, and viewed with true objectivity? Or is some of the praise that it is given merely bumpf? After all, MFA programs specialize in writing, not graphic fiction; English departments rarely if ever pay attention to graphic fiction; major publishers do not publish much of it, and major prizes never include it in short lists, even though it can be a form of novel. What needs to change for graphic fiction to gain more acceptance?

VJ: If you look at the history of comics (a catch-all for graphic fiction) in America, you see that in the wake of Fredric Wertham's campaign against the medium, comics were ghettoized as an art form for decades. While graphic fiction in Asia and Europe (and even South America) matured with a variety of stories, U.S. comics only survived through superheroes (and Archie). In the recent past, that certainly has started to change with books like Blankets, Maus and Fun Home bringing more academic and critical attention to comics. But I continue to find that the average American consumer doesn't realize there are comics that don't feature heroes wearing silly tights. The fairly dismal sales statistics of most comics and graphic novels reflect this lack of awareness. However, I am optimistic that this is changing. Two very crucial groups are increasingly supporting graphic fiction -- librarians and teachers. If these two communities embrace comics, they will help build a new generation of comics readers. And as those readers age and mature, they will look to a wider variety of comics, and the industry will be healthier over all.

2. According to some observers of the publishing scene such as critic Alex Good, literary fiction (particularly by new authors) is struggling these days while graphic novels are enjoying steady, healthy sales. Any observations on why that is?

VJ: As the author of a "successful" graphic novel series, I can say with certainty that sales aren't quite as sky high as Mr. Good claims. In comics, good sales are measured in thousands. For novels, good sales are measured in millions. However, I think there is more buzz and discussion around comics. Part of that is the Hollywood influence. Comics are particularly well suited to making big-budget movies, and that serves to bring more popular focus back to comics. Literary novels don't really translate to popcorn flicks. Graphic fiction also is a more nascent art form, and that lends it some excitement. For an academic who wants to break new ground, comics are the Wild West, while literary fiction was colonized ages ago. I could also offer a long digression on the many failings of contemporary literary fiction, but I'll save that for another day.

3. There are a lot of comics artists who self-publish.  As in the music industry -- with bands with their own labels -- this is considered perfectly acceptable as long as the creative result is good. Yet self-publishing is deeply frowned upon in literary circles. Why do you think that is?

VJ: I was just discussing that with some fellow creators at Comic-Con. Self-publishing in comics is a badge of honor. In novels, it's pathetic. In comics, this probably traces back to the mid-1980s, when so many indie comics burst onto the scene to great success (i.e. Bone, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Cerebus, etc.), and even beyond that to the underground alt comix scene of the 1960s and '70s. I don't know enough about the history of novel publishing to understand exactly why that community is so opposed to self-publishing. Novels have such a great tradition of self-publishing from Blake to Dickens to Twain. With the advancements in technology, we're seeing the barriers between author and audience being stripped away. I do wonder if perhaps we're entering a new era (see the success of novelist Amanda Hocking), in which the giant publishers no longer are the arbiters of good fiction.

4. How did you start out?

VJ: Start writing? It all came from a love of reading. One of my grandmothers was an English teacher and the other a librarian. Both were published poets. They constantly put great books in my hands, and so I always had a love of good storytelling. I spent some time as a journalist focusing on literary nonfiction, but eventually I felt drawn back to comics (I had been an avid comics reader as a kid and was always drawing). I love how comics mixes text and visuals -- it's just an extremely effective storytelling medium. 

5.What kinds of drawing materials do you use?

VJ: I draw on a smooth bristol and mostly use a very fine brush and ink. When I have time, I incorporate watercolors. I don't much use a pen, because I prefer the variety of line width that a brush offers.

6. Cartoonists tend to refer directly in their work to the influence of other cartoonists, while traditional artists get "left out". Any fine art influences on your work?

VJ: My mom is a painter, and she's by far my biggest influence. I enjoy most of the modernists, particularly Manet. My good friend Neal Obermeyer ( is an extremely talented artist and helped guide my early forays into comics.

7. How about literary influences?

VJ: Carlo Collodi of course, as his Pinocchio entirely shaped our Pinocchio, Vampire Slayer series. Italo Calvino is another excellent Italian writer. Nobody writes humor better than Mark Twain. I enjoy Capote's work up to In Cold Blood. The Great Gatsby is a cliche answer, but it really is a brilliant book. By far the best recent novel I've read is Tom Rachman's The Imperfectionists.

8. The United States has produced some of the biggest names in experimental comics, as the form has gone through a series of incarnations: the surreal satire of Krazy Kat by George Herriman, to the underground comics of R. Crumb, to the graphic fiction of Chris Ware.  Any other names you'd like to add to the list?

VJ: Josh Cotter might be the preeminent talent in comics right now, and it's extremely disappointing that he doesn't get more credit. His Skyscrapers of the Midwest might be the best graphic novel yet created. Matt Kindt is another singular talent who also incorporates brilliant design. Andy Runton's Owly books are excellent and truly deserve the praise they receive. 

Bio: Van is a former newspaper crime reporter and current magazine editor. He holds a degree in journalism from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he was editor in chief of the student newspaper, the Daily Nebraskan. He continues to work as a freelance reporter, contributing to publications such as Atlanta magazine, Sojourners, Publishers Weekly, Comic Foundry, Comic Book Resources, the Omaha World-Herald, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the Lincoln Journal-Star and the Lawrence Journal-World.

He is the winner of a William Randolph Hearst award and has been recognized by Harvard’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism and elsewhere.

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