Whither Comic Studies?: A Conversation with the Editors and Contributors of Critical Approaches to Comics (Part Two)

Many American fans know little to nothing about comics beyond the United States, Japan, and maybe France. What steps can we take to insure a more global conception of Comics Studies, one which engages more fully with the development of the medium in a range of different national contexts?

Leonard Rifas: Many (most?) of the American and other students who sign up for my class arrive claiming to know little to nothing about comics in the United States, Japan or France! To emphasize a more global conception of comics in the lesson on defining comics, I have passed out examples of cartooning in various formats from around the world (China, Nigeria, South Africa, Italy, Mexico, etc.) and asked them decide which of these specimens are “comic books” or “graphic novels” and for what reasons. I assign as a final project that they do presentations based on research questions of their own choosing, and some of those projects have focused on comics from Korea, Chile, and other nations. I introduce my lessons with news items about comics, and in the first three weeks of this quarter, these items have included news pertaining to comics or cartoonists in Syria, India, Brazil, Japan, and other places (but especially the many comics-related events here in our own city, Seattle.)

David A. Beronä: Associations like the International Comic Arts Forum and journals like the International Journal of Comic Art have been important avenues in opening up our understanding of global comics and cartoonists. Incorporating comics from other countries into our libraries and classrooms would support this effort. As a scholar of the wordless comic, I also believe this specific genre is the best ambassador for cultural understanding between countries and provides a context for commonality.

What relationship can/should exist between comic scholars, comic fans, and comics creators?

David A. Beronä: I believe the role of the comic scholar is essential in raising an understanding of the comic creator’s work that is enjoyed or sometimes overlooked by fans. I see this relationship in the shape of a triangle, with each role important to the other two. The creator must have fans but also scholars to open up interpretations and insight that heighten not only the experience for the fans but also for the creators–providing them with a serious interpretation of their work beyond the entertainment value.

A recurring fear among students is that the academic study of popular medium, such as comics, will destroy our pleasure. This seems especially strong with comics given the history of dealing with comics as “subliterate” or “transgressive,” often defined in opposition to school culture. How might we address those concerns?

Randy Duncan: Some creators, such as Dave Sim and Frank Miller, have an antipathy toward comics scholarship because they worry that studying comics in college will make them too respectable and analyzing comics will suck all of the fun out reading them. However, I find that for the vast majority of my students understanding more about the evolution of the art form, understanding how words and images work together, and knowing how to look for intertextuality and subtext makes reading a comic book or graphic novel a richer, more satisfying experience.

Leonard Rifas: I have built my class around the history of how comics earned their low reputation and how they went on to gain legitimacy. Attendance at the lecture which deals with the most disturbing images is optional, and every quarter some students chose an alternate assignment because they prefer not to have to see those images.

What models exist for thinking about comics authorship? In what ways is authorship complicated by the collaboration of authors and artists? By the history of corporate ownership over certain characters?

Randy Duncan: Will Eisner used to stress that comic book writing is not simply the words. To Eisner the act of writing a comic involved choosing both words and images and weaving them together as one unified art form. He felt the best work was done by a cartoonist, a writer/artist, and that the art form was compromised when the act of writing was artificially divided between a scripter and a penciller. It is true that much of the collaborative work produced in the industrial process of mainstream comics is not very unified; the individual contributions are often stitched together like some sort of Frankenstein’s monster. Yet some collaborations (e.g. Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli, Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso) seem to produce comic book writing as tightly woven as that done by a cartoonist. In these instances it makes no sense to consider the scripter the author of the work; they are clearly co-authors.

Why has Comics Studies been so slow to develop when compared to say game or internet studies?

Matthew J. Smith: I think that the larger social stigma attached to comics has been historically more pervasive in academia than anywhere else, but I don’t think academics are entirely to blame for holding a poor perception of the medium. When the gaming and internet have come under attack, those industries have not overcorrected in response to criticism the way that comics publishers did in the 1950s, inaugurating decades of self-censorship through the Comics Code. When the bulk of your material is ghettoized as comics was, it’s difficult for a wider audience of academics to consider the medium’s potential. Thankfully, several of our intellectual forebearers were not so narrow-minded as to dismiss comics outright, and we’d like to think that the arrival of this book takes the field one step closer to wider acknowledgment as the legitimate field of study it is.

Granted, the field has some work yet to do, and Randy and I have talked about the lessons we could learn from early Film Studies in particular in a post on the Comics Forum.

What relationship should Comics Studies posit between comics as a medium and other forms of visual expression and graphic storytelling–ranging from the Artist Book to the illustrated children’s book?

David A. Beronä: American culture has always been more accepting of both artists’ books and picture books than comics, though it has been comics, under the guise of graphic novels, that has gained a growing acceptance by readers. There is a cross over that is being address in each of these forms and ultimately display not a comparison of forms but simply our insatiable appetite for visual storytelling. The stuffy didactic generations who were “told” a story has evolved into a generation that wants to be “shown” a story, which allows a greater personal interpretation of content and hopefully for change in our lives.

Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (as well as the Will Eisner books which informed it) have helped to define the critical studies of comics around formal issues. To what degree does this tradition still define what we say about comics? What other models does the book offer which might break from this focus on understanding the visual building blocks of the comics medium?

Randy Duncan: One of the reasons we wanted distinct sections (i.e., Form, Content, Production, Context, and Reception) was to be sure the book offered a significant number of models that went beyond formal analysis.

Matthew J. Smith: Indeed, my contribution is an adaptation of film studies auteur theory (which itself has been previously adapted to television studies). Thus, the text not only covers formalist approaches, but moves beyond them to address ethnography, historical approaches, political economy, etc. By selecting a broader range of contributions, we wanted to demonstrate the vitality of the field where multiple approaches to the generation of knowledge are welcomed.

Is there a canon of Comics Studies–a set of basic creators or works that are essential for understanding the medium? How has such a canon emerged–through popular or academic discourse? Are canons an inevitable/valuable aspect of constructing an academic field around the study of comics? Why or why not?

Randy Duncan: In this postmodern age canons are considered elitist and exclusionary. Yet, many scholars who feel that way cannot resist the urge to makes lists. A number of the Critical Approaches contributors took part in the Best Comics Poll at the Hooded Utilitarian site, and then we had great fun debating those lists on the Comix-Scholars List. And, of course, canons are inadvertently established by what scholars choose to study. For this project Matt and I didn’t want to be the canon makers so we let each contributor chose the work they wanted to analyze. We had recruited a diverse group of contributors so we were confident the works chosen would be suitably diverse.

Leonard Rifas: No particular work is essential for understanding comics, but some works have deservedly become common reference points for comics scholars, and I introduce my students to many of those works, beginning in week one with McCloud, Eisner, Harvey, Cohn, Groensteen, and Horrocks, and later including Wertham, Dorfman & Mattelart, Schodt, Hatfield, and others. The canonical creators I introduce include Töpffer, Kirby, Crumb, Hergé, Tezuka, Barks, Spiegelman, and more. The value of a canon includes recognizing the particularly successful examples of work in this medium.

Contributors

David A. Beronä is a woodcut novel and wordless comics historian, author of Wordless Books: The Original Graphic Novels (2008) and a 2009 Harvey Awards nominee. He is the Dean of the Library and Academic Support Services at Plymouth State University, New Hampshire, and a member of the visiting faculty at the Center for Cartoon Studies.

Randy Duncan is a professor of communication at Henderson State University. He is co-author of The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture (Continuum, 2009) and co-founder of the Comics Arts Conference. Duncan serves on the boards of the International Journal of Comic Art and the Institute for Comics Studies.

Henry Jenkins is the Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism and Cinematic Art at the University of Southern California and the former Co-Director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT. His 14 published books include Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers: Exploring Participatory Culture, and the forthcoming Spreadable Media: Tracing Value in a Networked Culture.

Leonard Rifas teaches about comics at Seattle Central Community College and the University of Washington, Bothell. He founded EduComics, an educational comic book company, in 1976.

Marc Singer is Assistant Professor of English at Howard University in Washington, D.C. He is the co-editor, with Nels Pearson, of Detective Fiction in a Postcolonial and Transnational World (Ashgate, 2009) and the author of a monograph on Grant Morrison, forthcoming from the University Press of Mississippi.

Matthew J. Smith is a professor of communication at Wittenberg University. He is co-author of The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture (Continuum, 2009) and former president of the Ohio Communication Association. In 2009, Wittenberg’s Alumni Association recognized him with its Distinguished Teaching Award.

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