Sunday, June 27, 2004

What I said at the Harveys

I gave my speech. It didn't end quite like this one does, because the last page of the speech apparently didn't print out (ho ho how I laughed, sitting at the table, just about to go up and give the talk, when I realised that). And several people asked me afterwards if I could post it somewhere, so here it is.

Harvey Awards Speech.

I'm in the middle of writing a novel currently, and unlike the pleasant social world of comics where, if you're me, you talk on a daily basis to editors and artists to letterers or colourists or cover artists, writing a novel is something that's done solo. It's just me and a lot of pieces of paper. Even my family leaves me alone to write.

This means that when finally offered the opportunity to speak, I'm liable to begin with apologising for being so out of practice, and then to start blithering unstoppably.

Forgive me if I blither.


Harvey Kurtzman was a genius. And that was not what made his work special. We've had a number of geniuses in comics, and we have a number of them still. Some brilliant work is cold. There are some things one admires, but one cannot love.

Kurtzman was someone who was doing what he wanted to do, enjoying himself. Happy to rewrite the rules because there were no rules, as long as you were creating art.

Most of us are happy to have created just one world class, life-changing work. Harvey did it a number of times. He is one of the people who created the world in which we exist.

He endured senate hearings, commercial exploitation, watching some of his most treasured creations fail. Along the way he created art that will remain forever, and inspired a list of people longer than your arm, all of whom watched Harvey strive toward excellence, break new ground, tell new stories. Some of them went on to become cartoonists or writers or filmmakers � people like R. Crumb or Terry Gilliam. Others simply discovered that the worlds and visions that Harvey Kurtzman gave them changed their world, in the way that real art does. It gave them new eyes. Perhaps a more cynical view of the world, certainly a more pragmatic one. Harvey's worlds were, at least in their EC incarnations, never fair. You got what you needed, and what you deserved, and you normally got it in the neck.

I was fortunate enough to have met Harvey Kurtzman, in 1990, at the Dallas Fantasy Fair. He told me how much he appreciated what I was doing, which I took, not as any indication that he had read anything I had written, but as him expressing his pride in a younger generation of comics writers and artists. That there were bright young creators out there who cared about comics as an artform mattered to Harvey Kurtzman. He'd invested his life in the crazy belief that comics were art, and not anything to apologise for, and that investment reaped its dividends in the lives it influenced, in those of us who believed it too, and acted accordingly.


When, as a young man, my dream of getting to make comics started to become a reality, I started to meet comics people. These were the people who I had looked up to in my teens, in my twenties, as gods upon the earth. These were the names that I conjured with. I would read everything I could about them when I was growing up, in a time when there was precious little about them to read, and even less of what they had done still in print.

And now I was to meet them.

And I discovered, to my surprise, that quite a lot of them were cranky old jews. Or wannabe cranky old jews � they seemed to be enjoying themselves too much to be properly cranky, and not all of them were actually Jewish.

And now, approaching my mid-forties, eighteen years after writing my first comic, I find myself heading down the conveyor belt towards cranky old Jewhood. I'm at the age where they start to give you lifetime achievement awards, and you rather wish they wouldn't, because it may be some kind of a hint that it's time for you to sit down and shut up.

It is the prerogative, however, of those who are one day to be cranky old jews to give advice to the generations that will follow them. And while some of you are my contemporaries, and others are my seniors, I shall advise anyway. My first piece of advice is this:

Ignore all advice.

In my experience, most interesting art gets made by people who don't know the rules, and have no idea that certain things simply aren't done: so they do them. Transgress. Break things. Have too much fun.

2) Read outside of comics. Learn from places that aren't comics. Don't do what anyone else is doing. Steal from places that people aren't looking. Go outside. Many years ago, when it was almost unheard of for foreigners to write American comics, people used to ask why British Writers were different. I had no idea. I did notice that when I spoke socially to people like Alan Moore, or to Grant Morrison, we mostly weren't talking about comics. We were talking about avant garde forms of poetry, about non-fiction writers, about weird things we'd found. Grant Morrison discovered a long-forgotten Victorian children's author named Lucy Clifford, who wound up influencing both his Doom Patrol and, much later, my Coraline. We loved comics, but they weren't all we knew. There's a whole cool world out there. Use it.

3) Read all the comics you can. Know your comics.

The history of comics is not a long one, and it's not unknowable. We can argue about whether or not hieroglyphics were the earliest comics, or the Bayeux tapestry or what. At the end of the day, we don't have a long history. You can learn it. You can, these days more easily that you ever could before, study it. And the high points of the last century in comics are quite astonishing. There are things that Winsor McCay did in Little Nemo that are still unsurpassed. Things in Herriman's Krazy Kat that are jawdropping. There are things, as a writer and as a storyteller, that Harvey Kurtzman did, that Will Eisner did, that Robert Crumb did that you should familiarise yourself with and learn from.

There's more classic and important material in print now in affordable editions than there has ever been. Let it inspire you. See how high people have taken the medium in the past, and resolve to take it further.

Isaac Newton, even as he created the foundations of huge swatches of science, said that if he had seen a little further than most men, it was because he was standing on the shoulders of giants.

We've inherited an art-form from giants, some of whom were cranky old Jews, and some of whom weren't Jews, and some of whom weren't even cranky.

Another piece of advice:

I've learned over the years that everything is more or less the same amount of work, so you may as well set your sights high and try and do something really cool.

There are other people around who can do the mediocre, meat-and-potatoes work that anybody can do. So let them do that. You make the art that only you can make. You tell the stories only you can tell.

As a solution to various problems you may encounter upon the way, let me suggest this:

Make Good Art.

It's very simple. But it seems to work. Life fallen apart? Make good art. True love ran off with the milkman? Make good art. Bank foreclosing? Make good art.

Keep moving, learn new skills. Enjoy yourself.

Most of the work I've done that's been highly regarded has happened in places where, when I was working on it I tended to suspect that it would go one of two ways � either I was doing something cool that, if I was lucky, people would talk about for some time, or I was doing something that people would have a particularly good laugh about, in the places where they gather to discuss the embarrassing mistakes of those who went before them.

Be proud of your mistakes. Well, proud may not be exactly the right word, but respect them, treasure them, be kind to them, learn from them.

And, more than that, and more important than that, make them.

Make mistakes. Make great mistakes, make wonderful mistakes, make glorious mistakes. Better to make a hundred mistakes than to stare at a blank piece of paper too scared to do anything wrong, too scared to do anything.

Critics will grumble. Of course they will. That's one of the functions of critics. As an artist it's your job to give them ulcers, and perhaps even something to get apoplectic about.

Most of the things I've got right over the years, I got right because I'd got them wrong first. It's how we make art.

As a keynote speaker last year for the Eisners I said that compared to where I dreamed that comics could be, as a young journalist in 1986, we're in a Golden Age.

And I was taken to task in certain circles for this, as if I'd said that this was as good as things could get, or that there was nothing at all wrong with the world of comics. Obviously neither statement is true.

We're in 2004, the year that Dave Sim and Gerhard finished the 300 issues of Cerebus, the year that Jeff Smith completed Bone, both monumental tasks, both unique. Cerebus cannot be compared with anything anyone else has done. It's unparalleled in its evolving portrait of its subject and its subject's creator. Bone is, beginning to end, the best fantasy tale anyone's told in comics. That in itself gives me hope for the future.

It's the year that my daughter Maddy discovered Bettie and Veronica, and that gives me another kind of hope. Any world in which a nine year old girl can become, off her own bat, a mad keen comics collector because she cares about the stories, is a good one.

I think the Internet is changing things.

Twice in the last eighteen months the Internet has been used as a way of rallying around publishers who needed help. Good publishers who had cash flow problems, and who put out appeals for assistance, letting people know that now was the time to buy. And people did. The Internet meant that information was given to the people who needed it.

Last week, a web-cartoonist with a large readership, who had told his readership that he would really like to quit his dayjob and devote the time to the comic, if they could raise the same money he made in his dayjob. His readers dipped into their pockets, five dollars here and ten dollars there, and delivered the annual wages from his dayjob.

The internet gives your comics cheap access to the world, without printing bills. Of course, it still hasn't worked out a reliable way to pay people for their work, but Randy Milholland quit his job yesterday to do Something Positive full-time, and Top Shelf and Fantagraphics are both still here.

Despite the grumblers, I think the Internet is a blessing, not a curse.

And if I have a prediction it's simply this: the often-predicted Death of Comics won't happen. There will be more booms and there will be more busts. Fads and fashions turn up in comics, as with all things, and, as fads and fashions always do, they end, normally in tears.

But comics is a medium, not a fad. It's an art-form, not a fashion. The novel was once so called because it was indeed something novel, but it's lasted, and I think, after a few shakedowns, the graphic novel, in whatever form, will do likewise.

Already some things are changing:

When I started writing about comics, before I ever began to write comics, I wanted a world in which comics would simply be regarded as a medium like any other, and in which we were accorded the same respect that any other medium was given. The amount of respect that novels and films and great works of art got. I wanted us to get literary awards. I wanted comics to turn up on the shelves of bookshops, and to sit next to books on the bestseller lists. Maybe one day a comic could come out and be on the NYT bestseller list.

We've got all that. And I don't think it's important after all.

Right now I actually believe that the best thing about comics may well be that it is a gutter medium. We do not know which fork to use, and we eat with our fingers. We are creators of a medium, we create art in an art-form, which is still alive, which is powerful, which can do things no other medium can do.

I don't believe that a fraction of the things that can be done with comics have yet been done.

For now, I think we've barely scratched the surface.

And I think that's exciting. I don't know where comics as a medium will go in the future. But I want to be amazed, and I'm pretty sure that I shall be.

And I trust that one day when you, whatever age, race, gender, or ethnicity you may lay claim to, are in your turn a cranky old Jew up here giving a speech, that that will always remain true.