Comics and Canons: An Interview with Bart Beaty (Part One)

Comic Studies is one of the areas of research which have really captured my attention and imagination in recent years.  We are seeing comic studies panels included in more and more academic conferences, ranging from the Modern Language Association to the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, not to mention comic studies panels as a featured element at San Diego Comic-Con (and other such gatherings around the country). Comic Studies has been the focus on special issues of many established journals as well as several journals focused fully on this topic. There has been a record number of new publications about comics over the past few years coming from many of the most distinguished university presses.  There are distinguished research facilities such as the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at Ohio State University, which is a mecca for anyone wanting to research this topic. There are a growing number of college courses focused around comics and graphic novels, including my own here at the University of Southern California.

Bart Beaty, a professor at the University of Calgary, has been a major force behind many of these efforts. To date, Beaty has published 13 books on comics and graphic storytelling, including major translations of French comics theory and original research in comics history, theory, and criticism. He has been one of the most thoughtful writers about the cultural debates around comics (UnPopular Culture: Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1980s; Frederic Wetham and the Critique of Mass Culture; Comics Versus Art). His most recent books include Twelve Cent Archie and with Benjamin Woo, The Greatest Comic Book of All Time: Symbolic Capital and the Field of American Comic Books.  Here, Beaty and Woo share their thoughts about the emergence of a canon in comic studies and specifically about how faculty decide which books to study and teach, given the emergence of a new academic field around what was once seen as a highly disreputable medium. The authors offer compelling case studies of a range of different candidates for consideration as the best or most important work to emerge from graphic storytelling, using each to illustrate different principles around which canon-formation might occur, but also raising questions about what’s being left out, what’s not being given the consideration it is due. This is an important book for anyone who wants to understand how cultural hierarchies emerge and shape our relations with media.

This interview can be seen as a continuation of that project, as Bart and I circle back through some of the key exemplars from that book, and ask some further questions about cultural capital and the value of studying comics within an academic setting.

Some have worried that a core canon (Spiegelman, Ware, Bechdel, Satrapi, Gaiman, Crumb, Moore, Sacco) has emerged in comics studies prematurely — that too much of the early writing defining the field circles around a small number of writers and works and as a consequence, we are constraining our methodologies and theories to reflect that limited sample. Would you agree?

 

This is the subject of so much of what Benjamin Woo and I wrote about  in our book The Greatest Comic Book of All Time!, and I absolutely do agree. In our first chapter we attempted to put some data behind what seems to be a pretty common understanding about comics studies: that it has been thoroughly concerned with a small handful of creators and works published over the past thirty years. In the book we surveyed the field of scholarly publishing on comics in order to demonstrate just how narrow the work being done can be. What we found is that comics studies is disproportionately concerned with a very small handful of creators and texts in comparison to cognate fields. So, yes, I absolutely agree with that.

I also think that you touch on something more important here, though, which is the theoretical and methodological restriction that are currently being applied to comics. I think I would first say that to my mind there is a much greater theoretical diversity within the field at present than a methodological diversity. Consider empirical approaches to comics. While there is an increasing amount of work being done using empirical methods it is notable that most of the key players in that area can be brought together at a single conference next year in Bremen. To take another example, if we consider how much work is being done on comics that would require an ethics application because it relies on human subjects, I think the number of projects would be extremely small.

The vast majority of comics studies work being done in the English-speaking academy stems from faculty and students trained in literature departments, and it relies on the kind of interpretive close-readings that are still so paramount within those departments. That seems to have had a tremendous impact on the shaping of the canon: it is much easier for a graduate student to convince a committee that the work of Alison Bechdel or Chris Ware is “sophisticated” enough to be akin to contemporary literary fiction that it would be a credible subject for a dissertation.

How might we encourage comics scholars to move beyond such a canon?

For me that is the million dollar question. When I was asked to give the keynote address at the International Comics Arts Forum in Columbus two years ago part of me wanted to call my talk “Comics Studies: You’re All Doing It Wrong”. Needless to say, I didn’t do that, but I’m sure that subtext was picked up by many in my audience.

One of the things I argued in that talk was a paraphrase of Fredric Jameson’s famous dictum that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. I quipped that it was easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the dominance of literary methods in comics studies.

Given that the vast bulk of comics studies occurs in departments of literature, and faced with the reality that a literary canon exists and that it structures the way that those departments teach and research, we really are faced with two choices. The first is to simply accede to the logics of canonization while pushing the boundaries. We can argue that Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel, and Marjane Satrapi are every bit as deserving of serious study as Phillip Roth, Toni Morrison, and Zadie Smith and try to force those authors into the discussion.

In a lot of ways, this is what film studies scholars did in the 1960s – they demonstrated that Bergman, Godard, and Kurosawa could be studied in a manner that was akin to the study of literature. This is a perfectly valid approach and it has gained us, as comics scholars, quite a bit. I think that to the extent that courses in comics studies even exist today in many universities is a testament to the work that was done to advance this particular way of thinking.

The other option is the much more difficult one – possibly an impossible one. When we argue that our understanding of notions of inherent quality are simply ideological constructs that have obscured our understanding of how culture operates is more vexed, and to suggest that we fundamentally reshape our curricula, indeed the very basis of our disciplines, is just a non-starter for most people. It is an almost impossible task. In my own department the suggestion that there are not certain writers who “have to be” taught makes people think that you’re completely naive.

Your own work has been expansive in its choices of objects for study — ranging from a strong focus on Eurocomics to a book centered around Archie. How do you personally decide which comics are worthy of your scholarly attention?

It’s my sense from talking to my colleagues and working with my students that many of them come to the work that they want to talk about first and foremost. So many of the Honours students that I supervise come to me and say “I want to write my thesis about Blankets” or “I want to write about Jessica Jones”. It’s only after some discussion that they step back and arrive at the theory that might structure their analysis, or the method that they might best use to illuminate these works. The concern I’ve always had with this approach is that I think it tells me more about the critic than the text under discussion.

Personally, I’ve not yet written a book because I was interested in the comics themselves. With Unpopular Culture, which was about European comics in the 1990s, I wanted to talk about the way I saw the comics cultures of Western Europe evolving in real time. I thought that there was a remarkable transformation taking place, and that was what interested me. I wound up talking about certain comics because of the way that they highlighted certain tendencies. Some readers have suggested to me that I must really like the work of Lewis Trondheim because he is the only artist who gets his own chapter in that book, but the reality is that he is just so unbelievably prolific that he made the easiest case study with which to summarize the themes of the book (though I do enjoy a great deal of his work, if I’m being honest).

Twelve-Cent Archie is really the only one where I picked the topic before figuring out what I would say about it. Indeed, I was really worried that when I sat down to do the research I wouldn’t find sufficient material to proceed. Generally, though, I’m not that interested in promoting certain comics with my work. I don’t read the work of Rob Liefeld much (though I did read some Deadpool around the time the film was released), but Ben and I thought he was the best example of the a certain type of commercial comics, so we wrote about him in Greatest Comic Book. I will say, also, that that chapter shocked some people. Two of our anonymous referees thought it was self-evidently pointless to include a chapter on such an “insignificant” creator, which is a perfect example of how ideologies of quality obscure the field and the kinds of questions that we allow ourselves to research.

Art Spiegelman has talked about the process of reading comics as graphic novels as “a Faustian deal because the medium gets tainted by its aspirations towards legitimacy.” Would you agree with that assessment? What is gained or lost when comics are read through such a strong literary lens?

I absolutely agree. When I moved to an English department in 2010 (I had previously taught in a Media Studies department) I indicated that I could teach courses on “Comics” and my department chair wanted me to teach on “Graphic Novels” instead. I objected that that wouldn’t permit me to teach, for instance, comic strips and I was met with some departmental resistance. We settled on “Comics and Graphic Novels”, which strikes me a bit as “Ice and Frozen Water”, but the concession got the course on the books. Six years later I was able to get “and Graphic Novels” dropped.

The central gain of the graphic novel for cartoonists has been the ability to get them into bookstores and before a broader public, and, really importantly, to get them reviewed in The New York Times and The Guardian and The New Yorker. I do agree that without the success of Maus, and the creation of the graphic novel as a publishing category, that comics would be in a much weaker space reputationally. The graphic novel allowed us, as comics scholars, to shoehorn our work into the curriculum over time. That is a huge advantage.

When I began working on comics as a graduate student in the mid-1990s there were literally no peer-refereed journals in the field. There was a single scholarly conference (ICAF). No professional organization. Few courses. No programs. Moreover, we had active resistance from groups like the MLA and SCS. If my memory is correct, the first SCMS comics panel didn’t occur until the one that you were on in London. That was in the early-2000s.

In the late-1990s the MLA routinely rejected proposals for comics panels out of hand. Today, both of those organizations, and others, have growing comics studies areas and interest groups. So much of that is because of the graphic novel as a gentrifying idea. No matter how problematic the term can be, it has allowed us to win a number of tactical battles and advance our cause. At this point I’m very much in favour of winning any tactical battles that we can.