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

You make an interesting point that R. Crumb has been at a disadvantage in contemporary value judgements because he produced short stories rather than graphic novels. In literature, we can think of authors such as Edgar Allen Poe or Flannery O’Connor who have entered the canon as short story writers, and certainly playwrights can enter the literary canon and not simply novelists. So what might this suggest about the ways that the canon may be limiting our understandings of the range of options within comics as a medium?

To me, the Crumb example shows how much more narrow the comics studies canon is than the literary canon, because I don’t think that there are as many opportunities for Crumb as there are for Poe or O’Connor. The primacy of the novel in literature departments is a late arriving phenomenon – literature departments focused on poetry and drama for decades prior to the turn towards the novel, so there are obvious spaces for writers in other forms.

Comics studies has championed the graphic novel nearly to the total exclusion of all other types of comics (consider how little comics studies focusses on comic strips, despite their much longer lineage and higher general cultural visibility). So Crumb risks being left out of a lot of current discussions simply because he does not fit the norm of what we do. That to me is a real problem with how we approach the study of the field because it writes out almost all of the work that was produced in the first fifty years of the comic book format, and, frankly, the majority of it in the second fifty years as well.

Jack Kirby poses a different set of issues in your account, as do other superhero creators, because his reputation is grounded in popular and commercial criteria more than in the art world. Thinking about comics in terms of canon formation raises issues about the relationship between academic judgements and those constructed by fans or other more populist institutions.  How might we describe the criteria fans have used to identify the most important artists and how do they differ from academic criteria? One could argue that a similar split exists between novels that are taught in literature classes and “classics” that generations read and like but do not get much respect from literature professors — Anne of Green Gables, Treasure Island, the Wizard of Oz, etc. Or we might think of the role which westerns and their directors played in the early emergence of film studies (or later, melodramas) seeing an exploration of the tension between genres and authors as a central issue defining the field.

There is a really big gulf growing between comics scholars and comics fans, or at least between certain types of scholars and certain types of fans, and I do wonder how much of that will close over time. While we’ve been talking a lot about graphic novels, the fact is, as we point out in The Greatest Comic Book, there is a really substantial emphasis on superhero comic books in contemporary comics scholarship.

It too can be somewhat narrow in its interest. I’ve heard or read maybe a dozen papers on Ms Marvel, for example, a very recent comic book with a Muslim teenager as the protagonist. There are a lot of scholars who want to talk about this title and the way it addresses important cultural debates, and that seems very natural and very relevant. For the most part, the vast bulk of superhero comics goes unremarked upon by superhero scholars and the scholars set up their own canon, and Jack Kirby occupies the top space there.

What is interesting to me about superhero artists is that each generation will develop their own favourites and the turn-over is extremely rapid. It is a very star-driven industry, and stars can fade quickly. John Byrne and Frank Miller were the most popular comic book artists when I was a teen, but by the time I was twenty it was Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld – artists that I personally felt little connection to. The change was quick.

Kirby has endured better than most others, partly because he has a large cadre of supporters proclaiming him the “King of Comics” and who explain his importance to later generations of fans. The criteria that seem to most drive Kirby to the top is the sense that he generated all of these incredible characters who are still popular to this day, and that he completely revolutionized comic book storytelling.

That latter is striking for me, because it is the type of thing that becomes less self-evident to readers over time. Kirby’s dynamism is most striking in contrast to the staid comics that DC was producing in the 1960s, just as Godard’s cutting was shocking in comparison to the traditions of French cinema of his day. In an era, half a century later, where those advances have been internalized by everyone that followed they become harder to see. I think this is one of the great losses that occurs when we focus only on a very small canon – the breakthroughs are less evident and need to be accepted on faith. Many of my students, who weren’t even born when Jack Kirby died, have a lot of trouble seeing what is so different about his Fantastic Four because they have no exposure to anything else from that period to compare it to.

You write about avant garde comics, comics which are understood within an “aesthetic of difficulty”, a standard they inherited from the modernist tradition in film and literature. What does it mean to read comics through an avant garde lens when so many people conceive of it almost exclusively as a popular art form?  How are artists and readers negotiating those contradictions?

When I was writing Unpopular Culture, which is about this tension, several of the cartoonists that I write about in that book got angry with me when I referred to their work as “avant grade” or “unpopular”. I mean, really viscerally angry with me. I thought one was going to hit me.

It seems to me that comics is one of the few art forms that modernism forgot. Yes, there was George Herriman, but there were very few other examples of cartoonists drawing on modernist traditions. Certainly in the American comic book modernism seems to have had almost no influence at all. Meanwhile, film, painting, literature, music, drama – all of these forms went through a modernist phase. I think that this is one of the reasons that comics were looked down upon – there was almost no one working in the field who sought to cultivate a serious readership. When Michael Chabon writes about comics and modernism in Kavalier and Clay it really does seem like a fantastical element.

Nonetheless, there are a small but growing number of cartoonists who are interested in these issues. In the US we might go back to Raw as the beginning of that, and you can see this level of difficulty in the work of an artist like Gary Panter. That tradition has continued through Paper Rad, the artists involved in Kramer’s Ergot, and so on. To a large degree this is the fringe of the alternative comics scene. A lot of it is that rare form of comics that is highly influenced by contemporary art practices, and a lot of it seems more at home in a gallery than in a bookstore.

I think that there is still some resistance to this tendency – some people get their backs up about it because what they like is the idea that comics is a less judgemental space, one that is more open and accommodating. When Kramer’s Ergot did their issue that had the retail price of about $100 a lot of readers got upset about that; they argued that it was exclusionary to produce a huge oversized and expensive limited edition comic book. Avant gardes have always put some part of the audience on edge and they are genuinely exclusionary and that sits poorly in the comics world because it is relatively small.  I don’t think that the average cinema-goer gets angry about the films of Jonas Mekas – they simply ignore them. In the smaller and more insular comics world it may be more difficult to ignore these kinds of provocations and interventions.

 

Some of the sharpest critics of the literary or art world or cinematic canons have been women and minorities who argue that their contributions have systematically been dismissed or marginalized within existing practices of canon formation. And, sure enough, your research shows that their contributions have been undervalued within comics studies as well. So, what’s the best path forward towards a more inclusive and diverse understanding of comics? Are we better off rethinking the criteria by which canons are formed or rejecting the idea of canons altogether?

 

There is a part of me that believes that comics studies does a little bit better than some other domains in thinking about gender and racial difference simply by virtue of the fact that it is so focussed on the past thirty years, which has been a time of greater – but insufficient – inclusiveness in the field. In this way the historical myopia of comics studies can actually be reconfigured as a feature rather than as a flaw.

Moreover, there is a clear push in these areas. I could cite Hillary Chute’s book about women who do autobiographical comics, the anthology The Blacker the Ink, Carolyn Cocca’s new book on gender and the superhero, and Cinema Journal’s roundtable on diversity and comics studies to name but a few. If one is inclined to be positive of canons and canonicity in comics you can note that, because the field is still so relatively new, that there is a great deal of flux and that it is still easy to make space. Marajane Satrapi is an excellent example of this. Persepolis was one of the most taught and most studied comics within only a few years of its translation into English.

The flip side would be that we still have an awful long way to go on the diversity front, and we risk arriving at a very constricted sense of diversity that simply tries to integrate difference into the existing structures without actually stopping to reflect on how practices of exclusion have historically operated in the comics industry and within comics studies.

 

You talk about the concept of “world comics” as a way of developing a more encompassing understanding of the medium. How might we define a “world’s comics” approach? What kinds of works would this allow us to discuss that are excluded from current understandings of the medium? Are world comics necessary understood as the graphic novel equivalent of the international arts cinema or is there a way to create such a category that would include works from both avant garde and popular culture traditions?

One of the things that I find most frustrating about comics studies is the geographical and cultural blinkers that exist on all sides. I think that the easiest way to be an unread comics scholar is to write about foreign language works. If you write about works that haven’t been translated yet, you can really expect few people to read you. I think that one of the best recent monographs on a single cartoonists is Fabrice Leroy’s Sfar So Far, but because it is written in English and Sfar is best known in France I’m not sure that it has been widely read (even though Sfar’s comics have been reasonably well translated into English).

I’m right now working on an article about two books that are unlikely to ever appear in English (one of them is by Sfar, ironically) and part of me wonders if anyone will ever read the piece. The same is true about work on certain forms of manga, and even more true about comics from the global south. We can be extremely parochial. Of course, this is a complaint that is common across the board. My colleagues in Comp Lit will make the same observation about world literature.

Today I think that comics studies lacks a strong comparative tradition, and one of the reasons for this is that I think a lot of us worry about lacking the competency to do that work. One of my favourite cartoonists is Jiro Taniguchi – I have dozens of his books in French and English that I’ve read multiple times. If you asked me to write a book simply to express my admiration for a cartoonist, I would pick him. I am somewhat reluctant to write about him in depth, however, because I am acutely aware that I lack the cultural understanding to talk about him in the context of Japanese cartooning.

A lot of the writing on Satrapi that I don’t like is the writing that misses obvious connections between her work and that of many of her French contemporaries, and I am keenly aware that that is likely the type of work that I would produce about Taniguchi. So I wind up saying nothing, and, unfortunately, for the most part nothing gets said about him.

I really don’t think that “world comics”, if we can call it that, mirrors the art house, however, because it is often some of the most popular foreign language comics that wind up translated. Manga is a great example of this, where blockbuster after blockbuster have arrived in English but far fewer indy-style comics have been translated.

That said, certain blockbusters are unknown. I think few Americans would have any idea about how unbelievably popular Zep and his character Titeuf are in French-speaking Europe. Those books have sold more than 16 million copies but have never appeared here. I mean, Titeuf has an asteroid named after him, and the character is almost completely unknown here.

The logic of translation is incredibly hit and miss in comics, and it makes comics studies tricky. When I translated Groensteen’s The System of Comics I was acutely aware that a lot of readers of my edition of that book were going to be lost by the casual way he drops in references to works that are exceptionally well-known in France and completely unknown here. When I worked later with Ann Miller on The French Comics Theory Reader we were much more attentive to footnoting those kinds of things.

The other project that I’m working on at the moment is really addressed to a lot of these questions. With Frederik Køhlert I have a grant to research the trans-national reception and discussion of Charlie Hebdo. That magazine is an example that raises all kinds of questions and issues about cross-cultural competencies. There are literally moments where Frederik and I would sit in my office reading old issues of Charlie Hebdo and ask ourselves “what does that even mean? Who is that?”. I mean, at the basic denotative level we don’t know the references to French politicians in the 1970s, let alone what the specifics of the jokes might be. So far it has been some tough slogging, but it’s also the kind of work that both agree needs to get done in comics studies.