Comics from the 19th to the 21st Century: an Interview with Jared Gardner (Part One)

Jared Gardner’s Projections: Comics and the History of 21st Century Storytelling was the first book I read in 2012 and it was the ideal choice. Gardner makes an incredibly valuable contribution to the growing body of scholarship within comic studies, tracing the history of American comics, from the early comic strips at the dawn of the 20th century, through new digital manifestations of sequential art, at the dawn of the 21st century. Projections combines critical analysis of key comics texts with close engagements with the history of their production and reception, making significant new discoveries around figures and events we thought we already knew, and expanding in important ways the canon of which comics justify our research. There are two elements here which are close to my own heart:

First, the degree to which Gardner consistently understands comics as a medium (not a genre) and one which has to be understood comparatively in relation to the other modes of communication at the same time, so comics are discussed in relation to photography, cinema, television, newspapers, books, games, and other digital media, and we remain attentive to patterns of cross-influence across their history.

Second, Gardner makes some significant discoveries about the role of comic fans at key junctures in the evolution of the medium which help flesh out forgotten chapters in the history of participatory culture. His chapter on comics in the context of collector culture touches on some of the same authors and themes I want to explore in my own book project on comics and material culture, so I was delighted to have someone with whom I could bounce some of my ideas about retroconsumption against.

In the following interview, we discuss the relations of comics to other media and the role of fans and collectors in comics history, among a range of other topics. This was an interview I had to do. I kept jotting down questions as I read the book, eager to engage with the author, who surprisingly I did not know, and learn more about the thinking which guided this project. I hope you will enjoy his thinking as much as I have.

The book’s subtitle, “the history of 21st Century storytelling,” frames your account of the evolutions of comics as a medium in relation to the present moment, which you characterize in the book’s conclusion as one of convergence and transformation. In what sense do you see comics as “21st century storytelling”? Is it possible that comics were also embodiments of 19th and 20th century storytelling at other moments of their evolution?

Absolutely! The title is in part an an appeal to scholars interested in narrative and media to take comics seriously as providing a century long history of engaging with transmedial and multimodal storytelling. Narrative theory has become increasingly interested in comics, particularly for the ways in which it complicates its traditionally text-based models and theories; but for media theorists comics often look decidedly “old media”–associated with forms (illustrated magazines, comic books, newspapers) that seem firmly rooted in the 19th and 20th centuries.

It is in fact precisely the adaptability of sequential comics since its full development in the late nineteenth century that has contributed to some degree to this association. Sequential comics first developed in the pages of illustrated magazines in the U.S. & Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century. By the end of the century, the illustrated magazine was largely cannibalized by the Sunday newspaper supplement as pioneered by publishers like Pulitzer and Hearst, and as cartoonists moved over to this new venue their work was shaped by the new affordances of the weekly newspaper supplement: color, seriality, a larger and more cacophonous frame within which to tell their stories. As adventure comics in particular began to move into a new format in the 1930s–what would come to be called the comic book–the form again adapted, changing the ways in which it engaged with readers, told its stories, and explored the relationship between text & image, panel and page. So, as you say, comics have always found ways to adapt new media environments and to explore the possibilities of what we might somewhat anachronistically call an interactive, multimodal approach to storytelling from the 19th century on. One of the interesting questions with which I conclude is why, given this history, comics has been so very slow to adapt itself to digital environments in the 21st century.

Your conclusion really describes a crisis in the state of the medium, as comics may evolve away from printed form and become part of the digital landscape. What factors do you see speeding or slowing the dissolution of comics as a print based medium?

I do think comics as a medium are at a crossroads, but I am optimistic that comics will survive the translation into digital forms of production, distribution, and consumption–although what emerges on the other end will likely look as different from the comic book or graphic novel as the comics in the 19th-century illustrated magazine do when compared to those found in the Sunday newspaper supplement. So I guess I would not describe it as a crisis, but I do think that it is time for the best creators working in the form to step up and take more creative risks–and for some brave publishers to give them a safety net.

My biggest concern–and I have written about this probably too much in other venues–is that people involved in comics are understandably overwhelmed by the dramatic contractions of the traditional print mediums in which they have long worked and end up retreating into a kind of elitist stance, making expensive “art books” for an increasingly smaller, older and wealthier audience. That truly would be a crisis for comics, which is why I get anxious when I see, for instance, alternative cartoonists abandoning the traditional “floppy” comic book not for new digital platforms and possibilities, but for $20 hardcover comic books that have no hopes of bringing new readers and communities to comics.

But, I also understand the reluctance of comics creators–especially those who are established–to turn to new media platforms with their work. There are so few working models out there that demonstrate that comics creators, historically among the most exploited and underpaid of our modern storytellers, can hope to receive remuneration for their work on the internet. The big mainstream companies–especially DC and Marvel–are exploring digital distribution models both for the iPad and for personal computers, but for the most part these are simply bland digitizations of traditional comic books. And there is every reason to suspect that these digital comics will continue to diminish the viability of traditional comics stores and the communities they have enabled for the past forty years.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe in the long run that the traditional comics store can or will survive the next twenty years, again with the exception of some well-placed boutiques. But as we see the loss of serial comics books and comic book shops, we see the loss as well of the spaces and the places for collaborative interpretation and shared ownership that is very much at the heart of comics. Certainly, this should be something the internet can find a way to replace, but I am not convinced that Disney (Marvel) or Time Warner (DC) have much interest in nourishing collaborative readers with a sense of shared ownership in their serial narratives. Which is why I don’t believe, no matter how much revenue the big companies are ultimately able to move through digital distribution networks (and so far the jury is out whether they can make much at all), that the model represented by platforms such as Comixology on the iPad or Marvel’s Digital Comics for the PC is one in which comics will thrive and grow as a form.

What we need are more creators ready to bring their best work to the internet in order to explore the possibilities of the digital environment: comics that break free from the limitations of the printed page–rolling out into an infinite ribbon or inviting new modes of navigation that open up the page to exploration in new dimensions and directions. But we also need new publishers ready to come in and create a place and a business model where this kind of experimentation can be rewarded and find new readers and new investments. Disney and Time Warner already largely see the comic book part of their business empires as loss leaders or promotional tie-ins for their Hollywood enterprises. We need instead a 21st-century Pulitzer or Donenfeld to imagine the business of digital comics in which a 21st-century George Herriman or Siegel & Shuster can thrive.

As you note, comics have never exerted so great an influence over the media landscape as they do at the present moment, yet they have rarely seemed so marginal as a medium in their own right.

In truth, in some way comics have less influence today than they have in the past century, despite their surprising visibility. Comics sales are down by any measure in almost every corner of the industry and the notion of a “comics scare” of the kind the nation experienced in the early 1950s is truly unimaginable today. The marketing and merchandizing of comics properties is up, of course, making a very few people wealthy and successful, but little in the vast majority of adaptations of comics on film suggests that Hollywood has any interest in learning from comics in terms of how comics have historically told stories and engaged with readers.

For better or worse, the current love affair between Hollywood and comics will likely cool, perhaps with this year’s Avengers, which has so much money riding on it at a time when audiences and critics are growing restless with the decade-long tide of comics movies that it seems almost doomed from the start (then again, I loudly proclaimed the iPhone was going to be a flop, so I would not trust my powers of prognostication). And Hollywood has its own crisis to face, one which it has been kicking down the 3-D road for the past few years.

So while I am truly happy for any cartoonist who secures a retirement from a movie deal, outside of the success of scattered individuals I don’t believe the future of comics lies with Hollywood. But they may belong with film. Independent films like American Splendor and even the rare Hollywood production like Scott Pilgrim point to the possibilities of comics and film listening to and learning from each other in ways they have not since their shared origins more than a century ago, but Scot Pilgrim of course was accounted a failure by any Hollywood metric. The best hope for comics and film going forward is to create new sites of convergence where creative success and the bottom line will be measured outside of the blackbox accounting of Hollywood.

You describe in your Coda the shifts which have occurred in film viewing as a result of having ready access to a digital archive of favorite films which we can watch and manipulate as we choose. This access to comics starts earlier, yet there has also been a dramatic increase in comics reprints over the past few years. How has this effort to preserve and represent early comics influenced your decisions about where to place emphasis in this book?

I don’t think this book would have made any sense to write had it not been for what we affectionately call the golden age of comics reprints, a period of publishing that has seen long-lost newspaper comics and comic books returned to print. I am fortunate to have daily access to the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum here at Ohio State, but until recently without such privileged access extensive reading in historical comics was virtually impossible. Of the comics I focus on extensively in the early chapters in the book–Happy Hooligan, Mutt & Jeff, Krazy Kat, Superman, Spider-man, R. Crumb’s underground comix, etc.–almost all are now available in accessible reprint editions. The big exceptions here were Sidney Smith’s The Gumps and Ed Wheelan’s Minute Movies, pioneering serial strips from the 1920s, but I am now working with the Library of American Comics to get one and possibly both into an affordable reprint edition in the near future. Of course, this “golden age” will end long before we recover all of our lost comics history. In the long run, what we really need is a vast digital comics archive of the kind that licensing and copyright laws makes sadly impossible to imagine at the moment.

There has been an ongoing debate between film studies and comics scholars about how much early comics influenced early cinema. How do you characterize the initial relations between these two mass media, which gained public visibility at roughly the same cultural moment?

In the end, though, I see less evidence than do others of clear influence on the level of the fundamental grammar. Cartoonists and filmmakers ultimately learned to tell stories in unique ways as they explored the unique affordances of their respective media. But there is little question that comics helped provide early film with both a model of “celebrity” with the remarkable national success of early comic strip characters such as Happy Hooligan and Buster Brown and with a clear model for how graphic narrative could provide an opportunity to make knowable the often overwhelming experience of modernity.

As I argue, however, there were ultimately lots of reasons–both economic and formal–for film to go its own separate way very early, and it did. Despite their shared origins, comics and film ultimately did not interact a tremendous amount for much of the twentieth century, all of which makes their convergence in the beginning of this century more interesting–especially as that convergence has extended well into its second decade now, a lifetime in term of the half-life of Hollywood film genres.

Jared Gardner is professor of English and film at the Ohio State University, where he also coordinates the popular culture studies program. In addition to Projections, he is the author of Master Plots: Race and the Founding of an American Literature (1998) and The Rise and Fall of Early American Magazine Culture (2012). He blogs (far too irregularly) for The Comics Journal and Huffington Post.