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Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Interview with Robert Stapleton on Comics in Literary Magazines

compiled by Edward Chaney

Comics have been an important art form since the famous caricature of Napoleon by James Gillray changed our historical beliefs about the French ruler’s height and how it pertained to his need to conquer. Nowadays, comics, particularly by independent authors, are a thriving, vibrant field populated by a collection ambitious miscreants.

These comics can be the sort of things we, as consumers, search out and hunger for; but I think, for the most part, people read comics inadvertently. Maybe your coworker sends you a Toothpaste for Dinner strip, or your mom finds this Three Word Phrase somehow appropriate to paste on your wall. In either case, independent authors are using the internet to publish their works and find their audience, possibly because there is little else available to them.

While these strips may seem less than literary, there are many other works out there which can, and do, qualify. There are quality nonfiction comics that address serious topics like depression or social anxieties, and there are fictional comics use the same craft and nuance we might expect from what we might read in literary journals.

So why don’t we see more comics included in journals? There do not seem to be many venues to submit comics, and because the internet is so vast and full of content, unless you are among the lucky few to strike comedic gold, the comics will most often go unseen.

I asked Robert Stapleton, Editor-in-Chief of Booth, an online and print magazine that frequently publishes comics, for his opinion on the topic.

Edward Chaney: Do you read comics? If so, which ones?

Robert Stapleton: I read, teach, and publish comics as much as I can. My first and greatest love in comics is probably Calvin and Hobbes. Lately I’ve been reading the work of Daniel Clowes. Also, I love most things by Lynda Barry, Chris Ware, Ariel Schrag, James Sturm, the Hernandez brothers, and so on.

EC: Do you think comics could be considered literature? If so, under what circumstances?

RS: Yes, when the artist understands and integrates the central tenets of story, character, and pathos. Sometimes we get submissions of gag comics and/or political satire. Those submitters have never looked at what Booth does, or they’d know that’s not what we’re after. One of the speed bumps in the field is that there is no perfect term for the use of comics in literary journals. Are these graphic stories? That sounds like a bloody short story. Scott McCloud suggests the phrase ‘sequential art’ as the most precise term, but that’s unclear to anyone not embedded in the field. On our submission page we ask for Narrative Comics, though that sounds pretentious. Still haven’t hit a bullseye with this vocabulary.

EC: Do you think that this might be something other journals might turn to in the future?

RS: Yes. We’re not alone here: Tin House, McSweeney’s, Virginia Quarterly Review, Barrelhouse, and The Florida Review all publish comics, along with so many online forces: The Rumpus, Hobart, etc.

EC: Your journal seems to have an eclectic collection of comics. Some seem to be more focused on the artwork, like "Death of the Monolith" by Dustin Harbin, while others have a focus on the writing ("How I Came to Work at the Wendy's"). Do you prefer works with good writing overall or are you looking for something specific from submissions?

RS: I’m looking for comics that integrate humor and story, characterization and a unique worldview, a keen eye and a large, possibly bruised, heart.

EC: Do you think your journal benefits from the publication comics?

RS: I hope so, because I plan to keep publishing them.

Robert Stapleton lives in Indianapolis and teaches at Butler University. He is the founder and editor of Booth. His work has appeared in Word Riot, Everyday Genius, Stymie Magazine, OCWeekly, Bathhouse, Orange Room Review, Used Furniture Review, and elsewhere. Originally from Southern California, he earned an MFA from Long Beach State.

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