My Hero by Stephen Graham Jones
Format: Graphic Novel
Publisher: Hex Publishers
Released: June 2017
“Je ne c’est pas ici une bande dessinée”
A review/conversation with Melanie & Nick Page
Melanie: You look at the cover of My Hero and see a sketch of someone, like Superman. So, you’ve got some expectations for this comic book going in. But it’s all words. Like, not just speech bubbles, but words describing what a picture should be instead of a picture. I thought this could go someplace interesting -- form matching content. What was your first impression?
Nick: I glanced at the cover but did not notice that the crosshatching on the figure was the names of superheroes written in small text. Immediately, I noticed that the pages are framed in the type of template that comic artists tend to draft panels in, that being a box with spaces to mark which issue, page, frame, etc. Once you got in, were you able to pick up the story?
Melanie: Ha, no, not at all. I couldn’t tell who the speaker was. I could tell there was a plotline about kids wanting to create a superhero comic together, but the character names come about randomly, so it was hard to piece together a story. I ended up getting frustrated and stopping about one-third through to see what else was in My Hero. I saw there were some color images . . . I kept going and found at the end of the book Stephen Graham Jones’s explanation of how this book came about, how he had a bunch of time off and was going to focus on a werewolf book (I assume the now-published Mongrels), but couldn’t let go of the idea of a comic book after he bought some drawing paper while in the craft section of a store with his daughter. I like the idea he had: one time when it flooded in Texas during his son’s Boy Scout camping trip, Jones backed his truck through the camp to rescue his son’s tent gear. He now realizes that he could have killed anyone’s kid in a very stupid moment. But was that what the comic book My Hero was about?
Nick: I don’t think it was about anything. This seems more like an idea-sketch that isn’t meant to represent a coherent narrative as much as it is supposed to be an opportunity to play with the form. I end up thinking back to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics in which he breaks down the rules of comics and explores how they work. McCloud discusses the continuum between the word and the picture, so my first thoughts were trying to place this book somewhere between a conventional novel and a graphic novel. There are odd examples somewhere in the middle like Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves that start from the novel end of the spectrum and use creative typesetting, font choices, and story breaks to add a visual element. I have also seen webcomics, such as Erfworld, that alternate between graphic novel and pages of text that may include an illustration. Between examples starting from either end of the continuum, I think Stephen Graham Jones was trying to sit somewhere in the middle and scratch a creative itch more than tell a story. What were some of the details that stuck out to you?
Melanie: I just kept thinking about the kids in the tent in the backyard, holding flashlights and getting amped about the comic they would write. Why didn’t they write a comic about a superhero who accidentally hurts a kid instead of saves him? We’d get meta-comic book action! And Jones would get his story about the truck. But in the end text, Jones says that he is the narrator and also the man with the truck? I guess there aren’t enough indicators in the first part of the comic to help me get something out of My Hero. I want to say that Jones’s work reminds me of Gertrude Stein, who, when asked why she didn’t write the way people read, answered, “Why don’t you read the way I write?” Jones could fall into that camp . . . except he doesn’t when he goes about explaining himself so much in an endnote. Every book of his I’ve read has been explained either in the book or an interview. And all I can think about is the end of a fiction workshop. The writer has been quiet, the students have talked over his story, and then the writer explains what he meant to do . . . and the students all get excited about the writer’s ideas, forgetting the ideas aren’t even in the story. I also have no idea what the drawings without words, which is like a separate comic book afterward, are about.
Nick: There’s a comic-story layer and a story-about-the-comic-the-kids-are-writing layer, and their superhero, Doby, gets pulled from one layer to the other. It looked like people from the comic-story layer think Doby’s dead and the pages with art are of the funeral. An interesting element of this book is that you’re asked to imagine all of the visuals, but the book then goes ahead and fills you in on what the kids’ comic book characters really look like. Totally in line with your point about Jones needing to go back and explain his story. I did notice a couple of things in the book that might be references. At the funeral, a girl’s boots remind me of the Infinity Gauntlet, which will be familiar to fans of Marvel comics. The number #52 was scribbled in a couple of places, which could be a reference to a DC comics series called “52” that came after a mini-series called “Infinite Crisis” which was a sequel to “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” The point of these books was to unravel decades of messy backstories, crossovers, and side plots put together by hundreds of DC comic writers across all the different superhero series. Appropriate to reference in a book that seems to be trying to conjure a sense of deep backstory for characters we only meet briefly. The framing device seems to be the star of the show here, the comic artists’ template complete with coffee stains and such. It was interesting to see the thought process of Jones trying to figure out how to fill the space on the page with words, but do you think it carried the book?
Melanie: I loved the concept, but found no story and then was further confused when Jones wrote what My Hero was supposed to be about . . . of which I saw no traces. I would guess the audience is graduate students in an experimental fiction class. Plus, it’s a hardcover book, which limits the audience further due to the cost. Why not publish it like a comic book?
Nick: I don’t think superhero fans will find much in this book, but it may be interesting if you are trying to approach comics from an academic perspective - especially if you’re a fan of Jones’ fiction. If you set aside the bits of plot and look to how Jones, as a novelist, works through the process of plotting out a superhero comic, you can sort’ve pick out where he’s was going with this book, but ultimately Jones all but admits this was a pile of notes published as a book by Hex Publishers, which seeks to promote genre comics from voices outside of the mainstream. But, I don’t think My Hero would find a publisher if it wasn’t carried by the name of the author.