Aww Yeah, Dickens!: Ending the Never-ending with “Tiny Titans #50”

Strange that Tiny Titans, which ends this month with their 50th issue, ends in the same year we celebrate Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday. Strange, but not surprising. This is only where the story ends however, when it begins, the tale begins with Will Eisner. Because, really, which tale in comics doesn’t?

For his part, Will Eisner could always see the end. His entire career was focused on the sole objective of elevating comics beyond the discarded. What would it be like if comics, as a medium, could be appreciated as the unique artform it is? What if comics could be subject to criticism and to appreciation like art or literature or music? Could this kind of large-scale shift in cultural sensibility occur within a single lifetime? Will Eisner rolled the dice that this not only could happen, but would happen, and within his own lifetime. And in 1978, Eisner achieved his end, the publication of A Contract with God the first graphic novel, and an evolution into an entirely new kind of appreciation for the comics medium. But the end for Will Eisner, was just the beginning for the rest of us.

After the ridicule and the social inertia Eisner had to fight through to actually see Contract published, it’s not only fitting to lionize his efforts, it’s proper. Contract really was the kind of breakthrough that needs to happen only once for sweeping changes to begin. In a deliberate statement about the power of a medium, Eisner chose to break with the tradition of the superhero genre. Instead, Contract offers readers drama at its most raw. But it’s not as if the drama is executed by a heavy reliance on prose either–every element of comics storytelling is deployed to offer a convincing tale of human emotion. The inking, the shading, the choice to present the story in Black & White rather than in color…each decision adds to the full and complex weight of A Contract with God. In the space of just a handful of pages, the opening sequence grabs you and pulls you in, and never lets you go. At this point the greater story is almost irrelevant, but the narrative arc of a man experiencing great sorrow, walking home in the rain, is laced with the proper emotional pacing. You wouldn’t ever want to leave this moment.

His later career would see him evolve from comics evangelist to a near professorial role. Not only did he teach the art of comics to newer generations of students, but through public lectures, reprinting of his interviews (collected in Shop Talk), and meditations on the comics medium in books like Comics & Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling & Visual Narrative, Eisner was able to almost singlehandedly legitimate the formal study of comics in the popular imagination.

So when Will Eisner says, as he does in Graphic Storytelling & Visual Narrative: “There is a major structural difference between newspaper storytelling strips and comic books. In comic books, stories come to a definite conclusion, a tradition that began when the early comic books advertised that each story was complete. A book is free-standing, whereas newspapers are connected to the pattern of daily life. In a daily continuity, therefore, the storyteller need only segue into the next adventure. [Milton] Caniff understood that the story had to emulate the seamless flow of life’s experiences and that the human adventure doesn’t have neat endings. His work shows us how to tell a story that could make itself part of the reader’s daily life”.

Milt Caniff is creator of both Terry & the Pirates and Steve Canyon, two of the more successful newspaper daily strips. It is in conversation with Eisner himself (in an interview reprinted in Eisner’s Shop Talk), that he offers a valuable insight into his creative process. Milt offers: “Well this editor’s contention–and I think I learned more from him than any other single editor–his point was that, with entertaining, you must be entertaining no matter what you do or say–whether you have a message or whether you’re just showing off your skill. If you are not entertaining and the pleasure dies in your reader, then you’re failing in your mission. The newspaper itself is an entertainment medium. You read the headlines, but almost from there on you’re reading for entertainment. Maybe the sports scores, but from there on you’re reading the sports for entertainment. You’re reading about Babe Ruth scoring another home run or whatever. ‘You should always remember, no matter who reads the paper, it’s primarily the man who pays for the paper’–back to the editor–‘so always show a little skin above the stockings as a bonus’. [laughter] And he was right. Of course you had to be judicious as hell as to how you showed that skin above the stockings. I found, just as movies have been finding, that it’s much more provocative to allude to the promise rather than to the realization”.

Milt’s own quote segues beautifully with the earlier Graphic Storytelling & Visual Narrative quote about his work. Newspapers, even at their height, weren’t registries of facts, weren’t simply data-sheets, but the art of the newspaper lay in journalists abilities to craft a meaningful story that could move audiences to care. Editors of old, understood this power intimately; that the true strength of a publication lay not in getting the scoop, but in how a publication could shift focus to define where a new story would break. Hunter S. Thompson, the Good Doctor, launched a career and began a lifelong friendship with artist Ralph Steadman by not reporting on the Kent State massacre, but instead on reporting on the Kentucky Derby.

If anything it is this kind of storytelling–the kind that weaves into and reframes our daily experiences–that is central to the way Art Baltazar and Franco have structured Tiny Titans over the series’ past 50 issues. Despite presenting as a comicbook, none of the issues are complete in a way that Eisner derides expected notions of the comicbook format. In this way Art and Franco carry on Eisner’s own revolutionary assumption of the comicbook medium. What Tiny Titans offers instead, is something raw and powerful–the idea that through narratives can be used to aggregate individual adventures.

This idea is nothing new. We’ve seen the “banding together” genre play out across media. We’ve seen it in westerns like the Magnificent Seven and the Wild Bunch. We’ve seen it in “Origin”, Geoff Johns’ and Jim Lee’s magnificent first storyarc in Justice League, but really that notion of “banding together” has been present as an ideal in every issue of every incarnation of the Justice League. And we’ve seen it in every issue of Art and Franco’s Tiny Titans–Robin and Superboy eat breakfast cereal while Cyborg and Wonder Girl unmask Ambush Bug pretending to be Pandora, but all stories gravitate towards the Titans integrating the Protector, Robin’s “replacement” while he is off doing Batman-duty.

These are the Titans’ daily lives, and in reading their adventures as they wend their ways through these various and segregate skirmishes with the ordinary fabric of their extraordinary lives, yet still gather together by the end, their adventures become our adventures. Art and Franco only “segue into the next adventure” and in this way make the Titans, and themselves, “part of the reader’s daily life”. The schema is so flawless you wonder why a series of this high caliber would ever end. And yet, Tiny Titans is ending. Not out of any paltry, rock ‘n roll sensibility of “nothing lasts forever”, this isn’t the moment in the song where the keyboards rise, and the guitar solo to end all solos begins, and we realize in some kind of final conflagration that it is our love that will keep us apart. No. Tiny Titans ends, because 176 years ago, almost to the day, Charles Dickens collected The Pickwick Papers into a single edition, and inaugurated a literary revolution of his very own.

Imagine what it must have been like to read Dickens for the very first time. Not your very first time, but to be the first of generations to read Dickens and maybe not yet guess at the idea that the incidents and assertions and beautiful, animated color of London may be collected in a single volume to be read as a single tale from beginning to end.

Dickens’ great revolution was exactly to write this cowboy genre of “banding together” into the established and accepted traditions of the novel. It was the rise of the episodic, in the same year that Sam Colt finally perfected the revolver. And it would take Dickens a lifetime, a full career to continue to write this sub-genre into the idea of the novel. If Art and Franco benefit from the work done by Will Eisner and Milt Caniff, then equally they benefit from the work done by Dickens. Mister Pickwick, Dickens’ first protagonist is the strangest of all possible anthropologists, and arguably, the father of popculture criticism. In a time when the belief that society would decide your proper place ran rampant over individuals, Dickens took care to craft out a protagonist that would see people as they are, in their full and ordinary splendor.

Dickens’ project, it turns out, wasn’t at all different from Eisner’s or Milt Caniff’s. The idea that the ordinary humdrum of people’s daily lives as worthy of attention, worthy of investment, is a value that shines through in Dickens, in Eisner and in Milt Caniff. Art and Franco, for their part, not only exploit this idea fully as a theme, but offer the rise of the ordinary as part of the very comics medium they storytell through.

These are simple stories, easy stories. Stories that do not demand much in the way of your being able to succeed at them. Every comics page is a challenge. Will you read the images first? The words? Windsor McCay struggled with this in his seminal Little Nemo stories–in the first pages you could see him numbering panels to provide readers with a guide. But growing complexity meant this practice had quickly to be suspended. And it’s even worse. Reading a single picture, or a single capture in comics does nothing to alleviate that stress of realizing that these single points will always be incomplete, always be fractionated. It’s only once you’ve accumulated all the individual single pictures and words, that you can even think about creating your own story; a story that will cohere all the parts in a unique, defractionated moment.

Art and Franco remind us that comics is the art of not-yet-but-soon. That even while you’re immersed in those individual, fractionated moments, you can already begin to imagine a time when you’ve escaped this inexperience and gained full mastery of the page. And mastery of one page will lead into mastery of another.

If there’s a reason for Tiny Titans to end, it’s this idea of the ongoing. It’s a leap that Dickens was able to make–for Dickens an end to Pickwick Papers meant a rebirth into the endlessness of human history. It meant the idea of the episodic forever woven into the novel, it meant a reissuing of legitimacy for popular culture. And the end of Tiny Titans…? That might mean a rebirth into its own kind of endlessness. For those of us who can remember Quantum Leap, or care to, we remember that Dr. Sam Beckett, never leapt home.