04 February 2009

And the Wimpy Kid Backlash Begins

Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid series has dominated Publishers Weekly's list of bestselling books in comics form for so long that folks are whispering that maybe it doesn't belong there at all. Which may not be a bad thing; that's how we got separate New York Times Book Review bestseller lists for kids' books, to keep Harry Potter books from snatching the opportunities of publishers of adult fiction to say their books were New York Times bestsellers.

Esther Keller at Good Comics for Kids recently made the case that Wimpy Kid isn't a comic:

The pictures add a lot to the story, but by no means are they [and the text] interdependent and this was definitely my feeling when I read the first volume a year or so ago. The pictures make me laugh. They make me pause – but often the pictures pull me out of the writing (not the story). I could enjoy the pictures on a page of Time Magazine or I could enjoy them within the book. I could read the story without the pictures, and still laugh out loud.
Okay, it's not a harsh backlash.

I think Keller is absolutely right that the Wimpy Kid books aren't in comics form. They're closer to traditional illustrated novels, in that the text can be read without the art.

Indeed, what I think is ground-breaking about Kinney's approach to illustration is how the cartoons often comment on the text rather than simply depict it. Like Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the Wimpy Kid books combine pictures and text differently from traditional illustrated novels--but nonetheless also different from comics.

Yet another voice from that position is none other than author-artist Jeff Kinney himself. As he told the New York Times:
“I go to book conferences and cartooning conferences now and I don’t feel comfortable in either setting,” said the man whose text-and-cartoon books have been on best-seller lists for nearly two years. “I’m not a real author and not a real cartoonist. I’m a failed cartoonist.”
And USA Today quoted Kinney as calling his books "novels in cartoons." (The release of third volume The Last Straw has brought him out for publicity interviews.)

The truth is that when Kinney wrote Wimpy Kid, the pictures were a small part of his vision. The project took a lot of twists and turns before it was placed in the questionable category of "comics."

TOMORROW: Back at the beginning, or how I met Jeff Kinney before he was a best-selling failed cartoonist.


Ryan MCFC said...

I think this is a fantastic point! I've loved Diary of a Wimpy Kid ever since I read an ARC of the first volume, but I've always scratched my head over its labeling as a comic. I think is a whole new great genre of lit that deserves its own category. We now have many books that would go into it. Sure, a bunch of them are Diary rip-offs, but many are genuinely great efforts (like Hugo Cabret & Riddell's Ottoline books). Thanks for bringing this up.

david elzey said...

Because of the amount of text involved, and how independent the images are, I've never once thought of this as a graphic novel, or even a comic. Shelving it graphic novels makes sense because of its appearance and audience appeal, but this "backlash" was inevitable.

I've gone back through and read the first book, paying no attention to the cartoons, and found it a coherent story. Reading only the cartoons, no story can be gleaned. The interplay between the two - a sort of ironic tension that is built between what is said and what is shown - is very much in keeping with picture books. This is actually closer to an Eloise title than a graphic novel, when you consider the contrast of the character POV with the third-person cartoon illustrations. Wimpy Kid, I would argue, is a picture story book. On steroids.

I've encountered comparisons with the Fog Mound series, which have text chapters alternating with cartoon chapters, as well as with Hugo Cabret. In both of these case the text propels the story in a way that the illustrations rely on, in which you cannot truly understand the story by reading either only the text or the illustrations. Though I think it's more a fad than a trend (much less a genre) these two books are more in line with having created something of a new hybrid than Wimpy Kid books.

I like them, I really do. And Im glad people are finally getting that just because it looks like a cartoon doesn't make it a cartoon.

J. L. Bell said...

I think Jeff Kinney would be pleased to hear that the story he wrote as a novel reads just fine as a novel.