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ComicsAlliance Vs. The Atlantic’s Interview with Robert Kirkman

It’s been a while since ComicsAlliance has taken on a clueless mainstream article about comics, but over the weekend, the ComicsAlliance staff came across “The State of the Graphic Novel,” an article in The Atlantic where the magazine’s Social Media editor Jared Keller asked “Walking Dead” creator Robert Kirkman a series of questions that seemed designed to give comics readers a collective aneurysm. Not being completely versed with the intricate ins and outs of a medium is one thing, but Keller managed to get so many things hilariously wrong that we felt we had no choice but to respond.

That’s why today, ComicsAlliance’s Laura Hudson, Caleb Goellner, Chris Sims, David Uzumeri, David Brothers, Chris Murphy and David Wolkin sit down to answer Keller’s questions on just what these kooky “graphic novel” things are, anyway.

Chris S.: I have to say, I am legitimately surprised that he didn’t drop a “Biff! Pow!” in there somewhere.

Laura H.: I’ve long been critical of the moral sinkhole that is “Persepolis.”

Caleb G.: Marjane Satrapi would love to find out she lacks an ethical compass, I’m sure.Chris S.: Also, maybe listing “Watchmen” as your first film about a cast of characters without spandex? Maybe not the best way to illustrate the point. Unless he’s actually drawing a distinction between spandex and vinyl stockings.

David W.: The best way to discover that comics were never just for kids is by attempting to use “A History of Violence” as a bedtime story.

Laura H.: Did anybody in the general public actually know “History of Violence” was based on a comic?

Chris S.: Laura, When “History of Violence” came out, *I* didn’t know it was based on a comic. But to be fair, I didn’t know it was a comic because it wasn’t about Batman or a telepathic outer-space trucker.

Caleb G.: Honestly, his lede sounds recycled.

Chris S.: That’s just because it’s the same lede they’ve been using for articles about comics for 20 years.

Caleb G.: It’s an outsider researching comics based on research by other outsiders.

David W.: Caleb, you’re not supposed to do research when you’re writing about comics. Research is for amateurs.

Caleb G.: That’s true. Reading the comics you plan to talk about would hinder your ability to be objective.

Chris S.: I think it’s interesting that you bring up the concept of “outsiders,” Caleb. I don’t want there to be a huge division between comics readers and “outsiders” — I want people who don’t read comics to read them, because I think they’re great — but when you open up with “Hey, these things can be read by people who AREN’T CHILDREN!” as the crux of your story, it sort of puts a man on the defensive.

David W.: I don’t know why you need to be defensive, Chris. It’s not like this guy refers to Batman comics as “rags.”

Caleb G
.: I meant these Outsiders, Chris:

Chris S.: I bet those dudes would have some amazing insights into comics criticism.

David U.: It isn’t even an outsider thing as much as it’s just bad journalism. You wouldn’t walk into a war zone with this kind of cursory, half-assed context.

Laura H.: There’s such a weird mix of infantilizing and exotifying going on in the way he talks about comics.

Chris S.: The fact that you’re a woman would probably blow his mind. If he reads this article, he’s going to be like “Huh. Laura’s a funny name for a boy.”

Caleb G.: Kevin Keller would be appalled if he knew his potentially distant relative was so out of the loop

Chris S.: All right, now that we know where we stand, let’s get started with the actual questions:

Caleb G.: Allow me: Perfect Binding. Staples. That’s about it.

Laura H.: “If I were to ask a time-traveler with no awareness of modern astronomy about stars, they’d probably tell me that they’re simply giant pinholes in the celestial tapestry that separates us from heaven. Is there a clear distinction?”

David W.: “The difference is that graphic novels are longer and not stupid” is clearly what he’s hoping for.

David U.: “If I were to ask a stranger for the definition of a DVD, they’d probably tell me that it’s simply a video. Is there a clear distinction between video and a DVD?”

Chris S.: I can just imagine trying to explain to him that the term was coined because people wanted to encompass stories that weren’t necessarily “comedic,” and “graphic book” sounded like something with dirty parts.

David W.: “Are you saying that a full-length novel is the long version of a short story?”

Chris S.: Kirkman tries to explain that it’s a blanket term regarding format, but Keller is seriously having none of it:

Caleb G.: I’m sure glad super-hero books aren’t dark and mature these days.

Laura H.: Placed apart by whom?

Chris M.: Bookstore owners? College professors?

David B.: By snobs who want their taste in comics to be literary, and therefore valid, rather than completely arbitrary, like the rest of us?

Caleb G.: The best way to really enjoy something is to draw a line in the sand and never cross it. Food, music, you name it.

Laura H.: Keller is using a lot of passive voice to avoid specifying who the hell says these things and makes these distinctions that he passes off as authoritative.

David B.: It’s a longer version of “Some people say.” It’s a way to make things up, because surely there is someone out there who has said these things.

Chris S.: Seriously, every one of these questions could be answered with “Yes, you are exactly right” and I think he’d be totally cool with it.

Laura H.: He should just interview himself like Stephen Colbert, Worthy Opponent style.

Chris S.: Also, it’s nice to see that comics can’t be both notable and about Batman or Superman. Sorry, “All Star Superman” and “Batman: Year One.”

Caleb G.: Chris, people know who those characters are. How could they be good?

David U.: Honestly, there’s this total misconception that all the great indie comics were this all-at-once original graphic novels. They’re just as serialized, just as periodically, as superhero comics.

David W.: I feel like it’s really worth pointing out that “Watchmen” came out as single issues. “Do you mean to say that Watchmen was a comic book and then it became a graphic novel?”

Chris S.: Again, to Kirkman’s credit, he tries to explain the difference between the generic term “graphic novel” (i.e., any collection of comics) and “Original Graphic Novel.” And he explains how non-super-hero comics took a big hit from Frederic Wertham, which is why they took so long to redevelop. And then Keller provides a truly amazing footnote:

Chris S.: Oh, those crazy fanboys and their kooky dislike of censorship.

David U.: He’s right about one thing: Wertham was indeed adolescent in his mindset.

Chris M.: That’s kind of like saying “Joseph McCarthy was a U.S. Senator known as a villain among the socialist community”

Laura H.: The use of the word “villain” is kind of condescending. Like there wasn’t thoughtful or principled opposition to Wertham as a detractor, just fanboys who believed he was this relentlessly evil dude twisting his mustache in a big black cape.

Chris S.: Yeah, hanging the words “Chief Villain” on him makes it sound like Wertham was standing between two Tesla coils with his army of evil robots plotting EC’s destruction. Which is exactly what “Seduction of the Innocent” looks like in my head.

Laura H.: “Author’s note: Fredric Wertham was an adolescent psychologist and often known among fanboys as the chief Devourer of Worlds of the comic book community.”

David W.: But here’s the interesting thing about Wertham in terms of the larger conversation: he was concerned with how comics affecting kids, because the subject matter contained within them was clearly FOR ADULTS. Or, at the very least, mature teens.

David U.: It basically implies that comic books can’t discuss issues, nor can issues even be discussed in their context, without becoming reducted and infantilized.

Chris S.: And ironically, the content restrictions that came about because of his work resulted in things being infantilized even further. If I remember correctly, he came out strongly against the Code, and he later came out strongly in favor of fanzines as promoting intelligent discussion. His later work on the effects of racial segregation was even used in Brown v. Board of Education. But no, he’s just the Chief Fanboy Villain. Way to go, Ace Reporter Jared Keller.

Laura H.: HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!

Caleb G.: Typo gallery: “superheros based,” and “How to economics factor.”

Chris S.: The light-hearted nature of hero comics, like that one where someone got murdered with a flamethrower because someone else got raped on the Justice League satellite.

Laura H.: I want to airmail him a complete set of “Rise of Arsenal” to help confirm his ideas about that light-hearted, broad appeal.

Chris S.: Whoa, Laura. It’s a bad article, but NOBODY deserves that.

David B.: Airmail? Is that like… a threat? Are you going to launch it out of a rocket?

David W.: I would be happy to lend out my extra set. I use “Rise of Arsenal” to get kids into comics.

Laura H.: Kids love cats!

David W.: Kids are cats.

Laura H.: Can “Rise of Arsenal” trade paperbacks with little parachutes on them be part of the newest overseas psychological warfare technique?

David B.: I think it would make Our Enemies hate America even more.

David B.: It’s illegal under the rules of war, honestly.

David W.: I believe it’s being sold overseas under the alternate title of “China Cat Comics”

Caleb G.: Also: “Safe rags.”

David W.: I want to go on record as saying that I would read the hell out of a comic called “Safe Rags”.

Laura H.: All I can think of when I hear “Safe Rags” is some sort of eco-friendly menstrual product.

Chris S.: Again: Dude is completely unaware that DC and Marvel also publish graphic novels. And that they both have entire lines of comics targeting older readers.

David U.: Research is for wusses.

David W.: If you don’t have the time to copy edit your articles, then you don’t have the time to look things up on Wikipedia, David.

Chris S.: I can imagine trying to explain it to him, and I know exactly how the conversation would go: “Well, actually DC and Marvel publish original graphic novels, too.” “Oh, I thought they put out Superman.” “They do. In fact, they make Original Graphic Novels about him.” “WHAAAAAAA (HEAD EXPLOSION)”

Chris M.: And more than that, he can’t even seem to fathom that comics, like TV or film or written fiction, media I’m guessing he’s familiar with, can appeal to different audiences with different sorts of works.

Chris S.: I hope you guys are ready for Jared Keller to take a terrifying look… INTO THE FUTURE!!!

Chris M.: Oh my God. Those things are available for free. FOR FREE!

Chris S.: Remember when I couldn’t figure out who could possibly be entertained by motion comics? Well, here you go. “I’m almost imagining this thing that definitely already exists!”

David B.: This question in particular makes it clear that Keller never even bothered to do the most basic of basic research for this piece. I mean, not even searching “digital comics” in Google or picking up a comic book.

David W.: Kirkman manages to answer this question as if digital comics are not yet a reality, which is totally amazing to me.

Chris S.: True, but the fact that he shoots him down so immediately makes me love him again.

Caleb G.: Kirkman’s worked in Hollywood long enough that these kind of questions probably don’t even faze him.

David W.: There is no way to honestly answer any of these questions without making it directly clear that Keller has no idea what’s going on.

Chris S.: Case in point:

Chris S.: Man, wouldn’t it be crazy if Marvel of DC put out comics about zombies or detectives? And if DC’s biggest-selling title of the past year was about zombies? And if Marvel put out a comic about zombies that Robert Kirkman wrote?

David W.: If “Youngblood” is not a legacy, then I’m eating my copy of “Bloodsport.”

Chris S.: And if they put out any comics about Detectives, they might have to change their name from Detective Comics to… Detective… Comics.

David W.: I think it would be crazier if Marvel and DC put out comics about “everything else,” whatever that means.

Laura H.: These are the only types of comics in Keller’s mind: 1) super-heroes 2) zombies 3) detectives 4) graphic novels.

David U.: It’s just a bunch of mismatched categories. It’s like the original D&D having fighter, thief, mage, dwarf and elf.

Laura H.: It’s also worth noting that there is a dude at the Atlantic who totally knows about comics, Ta-Nehisi Coates. I have no idea why he didn’t conduct this interview instead.

David U.: Ta-Nehisi is fantastic.

Chris M.: Hey, hey, in Keller’s defense, he at least made the effort to look at the cover of an issue of “Chew” and infer what’s going on.

Chris S.: “Films have had success in introducing the public to the idea that comics can be real art, just like ‘Con Air’ or ‘Maid in Manhattan.’”

David W.: I find it really frustrating that he’s actually treating the notion of translation from book to movie as a unique and fresh question because this time it’s about comics.

David B.: Have you guys paid any attention to the “Games are art”/”Games are NOT art” argument? Keller’s questions remind me a bit of that argument. Both sides have valid points, but a certain subset of the “Games are art!” side has this kind of inferiority complex lurking underneath their arguments. If games are art, then their hobbies are not childish, and therefore they are normal grown-ups. “These are adult, right? Right? Huh? Is that right? Please?”

Chris S.: They’re only adult if you’re not reading rags about Batman.

David W.: Games are not art until they’re made into movies.

Laura H.: I’m pretty sure the movie based on Battleship is going to change everything, though.

Caleb G
.: This next question is pretty awesome:

Chris S.: Author’s note: “Y: The Last Man” is okay to like because it won awards and people in Hollywood like it.

David B.: I don’t even understand why this question is in the interview.

David W.: “Robert, do you have any opinions on a comic?”

David B.: “Hey Robert Kirkman, you have a TV show coming out. How do you feel about Brian K Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s Y the Last Man?”

David U.: Like, I love how he brings up “Y,” when he could have brought up “Walking Dead” which is actually written by the dude he is talking to. I mean — look, you’d think if you’re going to interview Robert Kirkman, you’d at least expense the first trades of “Invincible” and “Walking Dead” so you don’t look totally clueless.

Laura H.: Or at least read his Wikipedia page.

Caleb G.: Super-heroes sure do suck, don’t they, guy who broke into comics with super-heroes?

David B.: Is there any way to phrase this question so that it isn’t completely pointless? Like, what was Keller getting at here?

David W.: “Robert, I thought it would be best to never directly reference any of the comics that you create.”

Chris S.: Finally Jared Keller has been able to latch onto a distinction here — comics continue, graphic novels have endings — and he’s so excited that he starts typing like Mario.

David W.: I respect his dedication to getting an answer to his highly flawed non-question.

Chris S.: This is the best question/answer combination of the entire article:

Chris S.: You can almost hear Kirkman sighing and totally giving up. “Sure. It’s just like ‘For Better Or For Worse.’ Happy now?”

Laura H.: You ever wonder who all the obviously wrong answers on the analogy portion of the SATs were meant to fool? Like when you’re looking at the test you’re like, “Jesus, who in the hell would ever think that a mailman is analogous to a fire truck?”

David W. : Man, when I read the first issue of “The Walking Dead,” all I could think was “This is EXACTLY like ‘For Better or For Worse!’”

Caleb G.:

Chris M.: Also, I’m glad to know Keller has never read a comic book in his life, apparently, but has a thorough knowledge of the layered intricacies of “For Better or For Worse”

David W.: Sims, how much do you wish he’d referenced “Funky Winkerbean” here?

Chris S.: Oh man, that would have been fantastic. “Winkerbean” is definitely darker than your average super-hero rag.

Laura H.: “It’s sort of like Cathy vs. Marmaduke if we’re talking about newspaper strips. The characters in the former age and face the issues associated with growing old, while Marmaduke is always a great big f–king dog.”

David U.: “So Maus is about talking mice? Wow, is that like Garfield?”

David W
.: What would that make Nermal?

Chris S
.: Nermal is a Vichy French collaborator. You know I’m right.

Laura H.: Keller also “corrects” Kirkman’s spelling of “Cerebus.”

David W.: “Cerberus” was a pretty good comic, by the way.

Laura H.: The legend of Dave Sim’s three-headed misogynistic aardvark who guarded the gates of hell is truly a story for the ages.

Chris S.: And our final question…

David W.: This is the best.

Chris S.: “So, now that I’ve been able to define the term ‘graphic novel’ without doing absolutely any research, let’s take a look at the future! Do you think they’ll ever be able to put comics on the iPad?”

David W.: “I have asked you about the difference between a comic and a graphic novel about 17 times. Now I will ask you a extremely general, somewhat related question.”

David W.: Also, please read the comments where Jared basically says “Hey, I went into this interview completely misinformed!”

Laura H.: “I was so intrigued that I decided not to investigate any further and proceed in a state of total ignorance into an interview with a major comics figure.”

Chris S.: “I wasn’t desperate to define the comics I like as something other than the comics I don’t like. More intrigued by the fact that the comics I like ACTUALLY ARE totally different than the comics I don’t like.

David W.: I like the interview style of simply approaching the subject with silly assumptions and repeatedly being corrected. I bet that would be the best way to interview Alan Moore.

David B.: And not switching angles mid-stream after being corrected. Way to stick to your guns.

Laura H.: I wish he’d known even less. “So are comic books written by comedians, like Chris Rock and Andrew Dice Clay?”

Chris S
.: “Comic books started in newspapers. Do you ever worry that your jokes aren’t going to be funny next to news about war or fires?”

Laura H
.: Also let’s not forget that the name of this article is The State of the Graphic Novel.

David U.: That sounds like a panel that has Douglas Wolk, Daniel Clowes, Charles Burns, Jess Nevins and Chris Ware on it. That’s “The State of the Graphic Novel.” Not this candy-ass, ill-researched interview.

Caleb G.: I like to think the state of the graphic novel is a solid, but I’ve seen them melt.

David W.: I think it would be helpful if we closed out here with our own definition of graphic novels.

David B.: In conclusion, graphic novels are not anything special. They are just comic books with with a spine of varying size.

Chris S.: When I was in 7th grade, I mentioned something about a “graphic novel” to one of my teachers, and she was shocked that I was allowed to read something that was “graphic.” I had to explain to her that it was “graphic” as in “visual.” “Like… it has pictures.”

Caleb G.: Graphic novels are a section in a library.

Laura H. Graphic novels are comics presented in a book format.

David W
.: Graphic novels are those things that Tom Hanks wanted to invent in “Big.”

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