A Wee Bit of Comics Context

As I mentioned in my previous post, we’re moving on to Fun Home by Alison Bechdel this week, which is the text on this course I’m most trepidatious about teaching—mainly because, as I’ve said before, I’m not much of a comic book / graphic narrative person. Of all the various species of nerdiness I enthusiastically embraced when I was young, comic books were not in my wheelhouse … I think, in part, because I was a very fast reader. I loved to read, and could tear through a medium-sized novel in a day or two. Comic books were a matter of mere minutes, so when the time came to spend my allowance, it made far more economic sense to buy a chunky fantasy novel by Terry Brooks or Anne McCaffery.

That being said, I seem to be having a mid-life comic book renaissance, having read Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga (on the most excellent Nikki Stafford’s recommendation), the new Black Panther series by Ta-Nehisi Coates, as well as re-reading all the Sandman comics while we did American Gods in class. And of course I’ve read such staples as Art Spiegelman’s MAUS, Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and Marjane Satrapi’s wonderful Persepolis, but this still leaves me far from being a competent commentator on comics.

Enter my good friend and colleague Andrew Loman, who not only embraced the comic book dimension of nerdiness in his youth, but has parlayed that love into scholarly production: he has published articles on Spiegelman’s MAUS, has taught classes on comics and graphic novels here at Memorial, and since his first sabbatical two years ago has been plugging away at a massive project annotating Watchmen. And most recently he presented a paper at “Mixing Visual Media in Comics,” a conference on graphic narrative held here at Memorial just a week ago that featured some of the biggest luminaries in comics and graphic narrative scholarship in the world.

We’re going to have two discussions, the first of which will deal with comics, or “graphic narratives” as a field of academic study more broadly; the second will look at Fun Home more specifically.

Revenge of the Genres

Christopher: Let’s begin with the question of comic books as a field of scholarship, something that once upon a time, like film studies, would have been considered unthinkable as a viable area of academic inquiry. But now there are numerous English departments that feature classes on comics, many scholarly books and articles have been written on the subject, and our colleague Nancy Pedri can get a SSHRC (Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council) grant to host a conference devoted to it—and, indeed, feature respected scholars who have built their careers publishing and teaching on the subject. How would you characterize the emergence of comics as a scholarly pursuit?

tintinAndrew: That’s a complicated question. The first important point to make, I think, is that while North American comics studies have only emerged in the past fifteen years, comics studies in France emerged considerably sooner. The first work of criticism I ever bought was Jean-Marie Apostolidès’ Les Metamorphoses de Tintin; the second was Benoit Peeters’ Les Bijous ravis. These studies of Hergé’s Tintin albums were published in France in the early 1980s. So while Comics Studies was until recently unthinkable in the Anglo-American context, it has been thinkable in the European context for decades.

In the Anglo-American context, Comics Studies is still new, and it hasn’t yet established a firm toehold in the academy. Part of this belated emergence has to do with the disdain for mass culture that was part and parcel of the Anglo-American academy, which saw mass cultural forms, including comics, as Kitsch. I know you’re familiar with that prejudice from your interest in TV and genre studies: Clement Greenberg and Theodor Adorno cast long shadows. Part of it has to do with histories of censorship in comics: I’m thinking specifically of the Comics Code Authority, which came into place in the McCarthy era, which was modeled on the Hollywood Production Code, and which imposed various restrictions on mass-market comics, largely confining them to a child readership at a time when Children’s Literature itself flew under the scholarly radar. (The emergence of Children’s Literature studies is a related disciplinary tale.) And the largest part of it has to do with the slow emergence of the kind of the literary comic of which MAUS and Fun Home are exemplars.

maus
MAUS
was a breakthrough work for what would become Comics Studies, in two respects. First, its success emboldened publishers to take risks on other “weighty” comics, so that MAUS’s publisher, Pantheon Books, later published Chris Ware, Ben Katchor, Marjane Satrapi, and David B., and gradually there accumulated a critical mass of the kinds of comic that people mean when they use the not-very-useful term “graphic novel.” Secondly, because of MAUS’s seriousness of purpose, literary critics could appreciate it in a way that they couldn’t appreciate a work like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen. In its way, Watchmen is just as formally daring as MAUS; in some ways, because Spiegelman mostly kept his formal experiments at bay while writing MAUS, Watchmen is even more daring (there’s nothing in MAUS equal to Watchmen’s chiastic Chapter V). But Watchmen was still a superhero comic published by a mass-market publisher – that is, still caught in the grates of the mass-culture gutters. (I remember showing Watchmen to my Shakespeare professor at the University of Calgary. “It’s very violent,” he said, before returning to his lectures on King Lear and Titus Andronicus.)

comedian-in-the-watchmen-comic
The thematic seriousness of MAUS was its passport to the academy: it was often the first comic ever taught in university literature departments, because English professors could both appreciate it themselves and also represent it as a legitimate work to skeptical colleagues. Geoffrey Hartman wrote about it! And it made those other colleagues receptive to the argument that there might be other works that were as interesting and challenging, even a whole field worthy of scholarly inquiry. By the time I came to Memorial, I encountered only nominal resistance when I proposed a course on comics – only from the usual departmental mastodons, and even then only in the “this isn’t what I understand as literature, but go with God” attitude of the already-resigned.

I should add that comics scholars in Canada tend to be relatively young: we’re generally mid-career, which means we came of age as readers in the 1980s and later. MAUS and Watchmen and Love and Rockets have always been part of our cultural landscape. It isn’t surprising that as we displace an older generation of critics, we remodel the institution so that it reflects our own sensibilities. But we have no reason to be smug about that: you’ll remember, I’m sure, how our department reacted when someone proposed hiring a specialist in Gaming Studies. “The idea!” we all said, dust rising from our clothes as we shuddered.

Christopher: Right, I’d forgotten about that. Though for the record, I’m not opposed to the idea of hiring a Gaming Studies person, I just want us to hire the half-dozen other positions on the departmental wish list before we get there. Though now that we’ve absorbed Communication Studies, perhaps that IS something we should consider …

Okay, there’s a lot there in what you said that I want to unpack, but just a quick question first: in my introductory blurb, I made a point of saying “comics” and was careful to mark out “graphic narrative” just like that, in scare quotes, because I want in our classes on Fun Home to trouble that distinction; to my inexperienced eye, it sometimes seems that there’s a tacit (or not so tacit) hierarchy of texts in which “graphic novels” are designated as serious or literary, and “comics” play a role comparable to genre fiction in literary study (and your lovely history of comics scholarship seems to bear this out). Is this still a thing? Are these distinctions points of dispute?

Andrew: Your eye may be inexperienced but it’s keen. “Graphic novel” is a term associated with the comics artist Will Eisner, who started using it to describe his work in the late 1970s. But the term owes its present currency not to him but to publishers and booksellers, who liked the distinction it implied from the vulgar comic book. Hey adults! Graphic novels! It would draw in the status-conscious readers that booksellers coveted – and power to them, because without those readers and the market they helped create I probably wouldn’t be teaching comics.

joe-sacco2From a critical perspective, though, the term is troubling. It associates comics with a single literary form – the novel – with its own complex history and its own contract with readers. Among the terms of that contract is the (typical) expectation that the novel is a work of fiction. (I know that that adjective “typical” does a lot of work, but that’s my point: why saddle comics with all the sub-sub-clauses of the novel’s particular contract?) Is MAUS a novel? No, though in some respects it’s novelistic: it’s a work of dramatized testimony. Fun Home isn’t a novel, either, but rather a memoir; Joe Sacco’s Palestine isn’t a novel but rather a work of comics journalism. It’s true that “comics” isn’t a perfect term, either, insofar as it implies that we should respond to MAUS with laughter. A term that gained currency in the past few years, “graphic narrative,” is only marginally less bad than “graphic novel.” Finding the right word for this strange form is tough work, and maybe the only thing to do is to use different terms situationally and always ironically. But “comics” has one key virtue: it isn’t pretentious.

Christopher: Amen. This all reminds me of the New Yorker ad for season five of The Wire (which I noted in an early post for this series), which is basically an interview with Tony Kushner on why he thinks The Wire is great art—basically, giving permission to the intelligentsia and literati to watch television without guilt.

We’ll talk about the distinctions between “graphic novels,” “graphic narratives,” and “comics” in class, but I think in general I’ll stick with “comics,” however inaccurate the term might be at times.

Something I’m curious about: many of the “literary” comic writers/artists, like Spiegelman and Bechdel, emerged from a bohemian underground of “alternative” comics; again, not something I’m overly familiar with, but from what I gather, Spiegelman cut his teeth writing comics that were the equivalent of garage rock or poetry chapbooks, and Bechdel made her name with the lovely but (at the time) necessarily niche comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For. By contrast, as you point out, such luminaries as Alan Moore (or for that matter, Neil Gaiman) came up through the more popular, superhero-laden imprints, and thus took longer to gain academic recognition—in part because of their ostensibly unserious subject matter, but also because of their popular appeal. Does this kind of—what? I guess since we’re talking comics, I can say “origin story”—does this still obtain? (I guess in some ways I’m asking you to make a Frankfurt/Birmingham argument here. Sorry).

kushner-wire-ad

Andrew: I plead guilty to having first become aware of The Wire thanks to that very ad. But no one understands how much I love Tony Kushner. At least twice a month, I make pilgrimages to the Stephen Barclay Agency website to see if his profile mentions any new upcoming work. I’m still waiting for The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures to see print; I cling to the hope that he’ll write the Phenomenology-of-Money cycle that he mentioned fifteen years ago; and I’ll be first in line if he and Spielberg ever make the Eugene O’Neill biopic he conjured up somewhere – maybe in his notes to the National Theatre’s 2003 production of Mourning Becomes Electra. I brought his comments on Sir Thomas Browne to the comics conference just in case someone asked why I thought Alan Moore might have read “The Garden of Cyrus.” (No one asked.) I love him. So I’m guilty – but I hope I get a reduced sentence.

You’re right that Spiegelman and Bechdel both come from alternative scenes, and that Moore and Gaiman’s path, lined as it is with capes and cowls, has set the terms of their institutional recognition. But Moore left DC years ago, and he went on to write many, many works that neither conform to recognizable genres nor would be well-received in the mass market (try pitching From Hell or Lost Girls to a media empire). Even so he still doesn’t have the critical stature of Spiegelman or Bechdel of Chris Ware. One suspects other factors at play. His work is seriously uneven (though Spiegelman’s is, too). He’s too weird for the generally middle-class critics who’ve made it through the polishing machine of graduate school and the job market (he worships a snake puppet!). And unlike, Spiegelman and Bechdel and Ware, who are all writer/artists, he relies on collaborators (as does Gaiman). That last one may be the most important: in spite of the collaborative example of film and theatre, cultural criticism remains most comfortable with single authors (witness the auteur theory in Film Studies, or the status of the showrunner in prestige TV).

I’d guess that critics’ preference for the alternative comics creator will persist as long as the high art/low art binary does. To me it seems robust. Bart Beaty recently wrote a critical study of Archie Comics in a spirit of rebellion against the canon-builders who’d only choose “respectable” artists while scorning the “litter auteurs” (if I may). An honourable project – but I think there are institutional and cultural forces working against him.

But ask me again tomorrow and I might tell a different story. The elevation of comics’ reputation has given rise to wonders: The New York Review of Books reviewing a Batman comic; Ta-Nehisi Coates writing Black Panther. We may yet wake up in a world where Nicole Eisenman is drawing Wonder Woman, and where Archie Comics are understood to be just as significant and sophisticated, on their own terms, as MAUS is, on its.

Christopher: I was going to save mention of the Ta-Nehisi black-pantherCoates Black Panther until later in this discussion, but since you brought it up, there’s no time like the present. When I first conceived of this course, I knew I’d want to include a comics component (in spite of my ignorance of the field). At the time when I was first jotting down the notes that would evolve into “Revenge of the Genres,” I was avidly reading Coates’ blog and his account of what it was like to write a comic book when this was something he’d never done. I was also, at that point, reading his heartbreaking and deeply affecting essay Between the World and Me, his cri de coeur about being a black man in America.

His Black Panther was in very close contention with Fun Home as the representative graphic text for this course.

I won’t ask you what you think of Coates’ take on Black Panther (that, presumably, will be an informal conversation over beer); I will, however, ask you what your thoughts are that a person who is arguably the leading African-American public intellectual of our historical moment (Toni Morrison has compared him to James Baldwin) has taken authorship over one of the very few black superheroes we have?

Andrew: It’s astonishing. I hope Suzan-Lori Parks or Tarell Alvin McCraney or Branden Jacobs-Jenkins gets an invitation next (I’m naming playwrights because I think they’d make the transition to comics more easily than would an essayist). I had an intimation that Coates might try his hand at comics a year or so ago when the New York Times asked him what he was reading. He mentioned E. L. Doctorow’s The Waterworks, which was the sort of book I would expect him to read; and then he mentioned Jonathan Hickman’s run on The Avengers, which was not. That’s when I first learned that he’s part of the nerd collective; I gather some wise person at Marvel figured that out sooner. It still gives me vertigo when I see his name on the covers of Marvel comics. Time will tell if his run is just a fluke convergence of personal inclination and corporate canniness (Disney jealously eyeing Coates’ cultural capital): that kind of literary tourism happens semi-regularly (“Why not dash off a comic or two, Ms. Atwood?”). But of course I’d love to see him alternate between essays and comics over the long term – especially as he becomes more dexterous as a comics writer.

But apropos of his take on Black Panther – why wait for beer? – I’ve read the first two issues and found them pretty forbidding. Coates has inherited the continuity and characters from earlier writers, and he begins in medias res, during some sort of Wakandan civil unrest. I’m sure it all makes sense to Marvel habitués, but I’m afraid I come to Black Panther knowing nothing about the character – so I can’t say I’ve enjoyed it so far. But I want desperately to believe. I’ve rarely been moved by any paragraph as much as by this one, from Between the World and Me:

Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dress-making and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone.

Someone who can write like that is worth trying and trying again. I’ll be buying the trade paperback.

Christopher: That actually sets up both a great final question to end this discussion, and a useful segue into Fun Home. Which is to say: given its place on the literary fringes, do you think comics studies offers a more fruitful space for previously marginalized voices to make themselves heard than “literary” fiction?

Andrew: Not comics studies, but maybe comics – maybe. The received wisdom is that because American comics have been perennially a despised form, marginalized voices have made themselves heard there. The great example is the superhero, created by young writers who were overwhelmingly Jewish American. But if that received wisdom is true, then as comics come increasingly into the literary spotlight, they’ll become less, not more hospitable to marginalized voices: the legitimation of the form will be bad for its diversity. But the story is no doubt more complicated than the received wisdom would allow. Those inventors of the superhero were overwhelmingly men, for instance, while “literary” authors of the 1930s included many women. Where gender is concerned, “literary” fiction today is still substantially more diverse than comics. And the legitimation of comics seems to have made them more rather than less hospitable to gender diversity. Alison Bechdel is a trailblazer not only because she’s a Lesbian cartoonist but also because she’s a woman: in 2004, two years before she published Fun Home, The New York Times profiled five comics artists – Art Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Joe Sacco, Seth, and Chester Brown – and as you can see from that list, there was not a woman among them (there were of course women writing comics, including Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Lynda Barry, but they didn’t have the stature or visibility of those five men). Fantagraphics – a major publisher of comics with pretensions to art – was still largely a boy’s club. Glance at the comics section in a bookstore now (sorry, the “graphic novels” section), and you’ll see a number of women represented there – the brilliant Eleanor Davis, Leela Corman, Rutu Modan, Jillian Tamaki, Sarah Glidden, and many more.

But literary fiction is itself at the fringes of culture, so maybe we’re making the wrong comparison. Compared to Hollywood, comics are a festival of difference, and present a grand opportunity to those true artists, no matter their gender, ethnicity, or class, who are prepared to live hard-scrabble lives in draughty roach-choked apartments, struggling to make ends meet while they craft heartfelt works of subtlety and beauty that will finally come to press when they’re in their late 40s.

spiegleman_111213_820px

Christopher: And on that ringing endorsement of the comics-writing lifestyle, we’ll bring this discussion to a close. Thanks so much for talking with me about this, and for bringing your encyclopedic knowledge to bear on a topic for which I am but a neophyte.

And thanks everyone for reading. Stay tuned for the next installment: Andrew will be back to talk in more depth and detail about Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home.

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