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

Archie would probably end up on nobody’s list of the “greatest comics,” but it may well be one of the most pervasive comics in that many comics readers pass through an Archie phase at one time or another, at least those who start reading comics in their childhood.  Is Archie a “plausible text” in the sense you are discussing here and if not, why not?

I chose to work on Archie Comics precisely because I thought it was “implausible”. Indeed, I thought it might be the most implausible text that I could have suggested, and that was the reason that I suggested it!

The series that Twelve-Cent Archie appears in from Rutgers is focused on each volume highlighting an important text. It is an avowedly canon-building publishing program. When I was invited to contribute one of the first books to that series I was quite reluctant to do so, because I really didn’t want to help build that kind of enterprise for many of the reasons that we lay out in Greatest Comic Book (which is a bit of a deliberate expansion of Archie, and a comment on the series). I quite clearly remember saying, “A series like this would never include a book on something like Archie Comics”. To his eternal credit, the series editor, Corey Creekmur, immediately responded that it would and that he wanted me to write it. So my big mouth got me in trouble.

The problem then was obvious: how do I make Archie plausible? I knew that I wanted at least one of the arguments of the book to be a critique of notions of greatness, of importance, but I wasn’t sure exactly how to stretch that out to 80,000 words. The fact is that Archie Comics are very standardized – that is a huge part of their appeal for their readers – but that made them a challenge to approach. So much of that book was determining how to talk about innovation within standardization and the subtle differences that become apparent only in routines.

Twelve-Cent Archie is very much a book that only a full professor would write. If one of my own graduate students had suggested it to me I would have counselled them against it. I have chaired a lot of hiring committees and I have seen how tough it can be for scholars working on non-traditional topics to get past the initial screening; this would have been a career killer for an early career academic. I think it’s notably also the only book that I have written that I didn’t receive research funding for – I didn’t even ask, really, because I could see that writing on the wall.

Why might such a work be worthy of serious study and what can it tell us about value judgements in comics more generally?

After the Archie book came out, it was widely reviewed – particularly here in Canada. I wound up winning my university’s research prize for it and I still recall sitting on the side of the stage with my university’s senior leadership sitting in the front row of the auditorium as my dean talked about my book about Archie. The other recipients were all trying to cure cancer, or end homelessness, and there I was getting the same award for a semiotic analysis of Betty Cooper’s hair. It seemed to me that I had taken the idea that is so common in the natural sciences – that humanities scholars are frivolous – and turned up the dial all the way to eleven.

That said, I get almost an email a week about that book, almost all of them from people who have never read any other scholarly work. Archie Comics have a profound resonance for millions of readers, and they are amazed to see someone take it seriously. Of course, I also get weekly emails from people accusing me of being an obvious drain on the public purse…

 

You noted in Comics vs. Art that comics have not necessarily benefited from a general tendency in the arts to think about hybrid forms as “particularly complex works that unite disparate elements, thereby accruing values attached to each.”  Perhaps comics have, instead, been evaluated according to somewhat older arguments about medium specificity which distrusted hybridity. See, for example, Rudolph Arnheim’s critique of talking films as “unnatural” and “mongrel” because “two media are fighting with each other” and no consistent set of aesthetic standards can apply. Artistic distaste for comics dates back to the early 20th century where these ideas about artistic purity were dominant and they have been hard to escape. In many ways, the attempt to read graphic novels through a post-modernist frame would seem to be an attempt to rethink those judgements, with mixed results. So, how might we think about the aesthetic value of comics in relation to this older tradition of seeking medium specificity?

More than any other question I think that this is an issue that my work has always been grappling with. From the beginning, some of the most important and influential comics scholarship has been interested in this question: what do comics do that other media don’t? And how do they operate? We can think of Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Thierry Groensteen’s The System of Comics as key exemplars here, but there is really a whole host of scholars who turned to this question very early on in the history of comics studies. This isn’t surprising: medium specificity was the subject of a lot of early film criticism as well, from Eisenstein to Bazin and so on. It seems to be a stage that most fields go through.

One of the books that I had hoped to write would have taken this topic head on. I tentatively called it “Comics Off the Page” and I was interested in examples where cartoonists worked in non-comics media. I was inspired by seeing “Happy Hooligan is Still Moving”, the dance that Art Spiegelman choreographed with Pilobolus Dance Theatre in New York. I thought I could shed some interesting light on how comics work by examining how they interact with things that people don’t think of as comics. Unfortunately, that project really bogged down. I couldn’t find an interesting way to talk about it without simply getting into long descriptive passages of the works, most of which aren’t available to readers. I think that it works well as a lecture – I’ve had a lot of success presenting some of the preliminary thoughts – but it falls apart on the page. Ironic, given my proposed title.

My new project, with Ben Woo and Nick Sousanis, seems to be working better. It’s called What Were Comics?, and last year we received a really sizeable grant from the Canadian government to do the work. We’re interested in looking at the history of what comic book were over time. This has helped lift the discussion out of abstraction. Instead of thinking “comics could be this or they could be that”, which is an area where Nick particularly excels, we’re a lot more focused on dealing concrete shifts and showing what actually did happen.

One of the things that I’ve learned in talking about these projects is that most people view comics in a more restricted way than I do. A lot of people seem to regard comics as what you draw on bristol board and then publish in comic books. Webcomics has shifted this a bit, but it hasn’t shifted it to the point that comics are seen to be really in dialogue with other art forms. Painters borrow freely from comics, much more it seems than cartoonists borrow from contemporary painters. I think some of this has to do with the way that MFA programs teach (or, more accurately, don’t teach) comics, but it is striking how isolated comics can still be in the world of arts.

Across several of your books, you note a number of attempts by authors and artists — most directly in terms of Art Spiegelman —  to promote their own legacy. What strategies do you think have been successful for comics creators as they have sought to demonstrate their status as auteurs worthy of entry into the canon of graphic storytelling? How do these approaches resemble or differ from those deployed by artists working in other media — painting, cinema, literature?

I think that the institutions of the comics world are much weaker than they are in other art worlds. The steps towards becoming an important painter seem to be really clearly laid out: get a degree, get a gallery, and so on. There are so few examples of cartoonists becoming successful that it is not so clear what the route is.

Once upon a time it was clearly: get a commercially successful daily strip. All of the “greats” from the first half of the twentieth-century, in the United States, were strip cartoonists. Many were beloved, and many were household names – real superstars in the culture. Obviously that route is vanishing quickly.

Spiegelman showed a very different path, which was create “one great work”, and a number of people have successfully followed that model. It’s a model that is very akin to literature.

The flip side would be Lynda Barry, who struggled in semi-obscurity for a long time to the point that she considered quitting before Drawn and Quarterly shone a new spotlight on her amazing body of work. That’s also very akin to literature, unfortunately. A critical hit will provide a foundation for future work, and then the issue becomes follow-up.

Interestingly, in the more mainstream area of comics production reputation building seems to be more similar to contemporary filmmaking. The ideal trajectory might be to self-publish and build a reputation, get hired to write or draw a low-level superhero title, turn that into a success and do higher profile work until your name is more important than the characters you write. Then you jump to Image, launch your own title and cash in, I guess.

I think that there remains a bifurcation that we used to refer to as mainstream and alternative, and the collaborative and (generally) solitary approaches that are favoured by each indicates different pathways to longevity.

 

Comments

  1. Charles Hatfield says:

    “So, how might we think about the aesthetic value of comics in relation to this older tradition of seeking medium specificity?”

    I’m of two minds about this:

    One, seeking medium specificity does indeed seem to be an almost inevitable phase in the rise of a scholarly or critical field. This happens in vernacular criticism as well as more academically or institutionally rooted criticism. There’s a tendency nowadays to bemoan the definitional project, medium specificity, auteur criticism, etc., as “old moves,” i.e. rearguard holdovers from mid-20th c. criticism, but I tend to think they’re inevitable.*

    Two, however, I do think that the radical heterogeneity and instability of comics as “a form” is one of the things driving the definitional project and the quest for medium specificity. That is, I think that insisting on definitions and “uniquely” comics-based properties is an ideological move that denies the mixed roots (and branches) of the form. The search for medium specificity is partly anxiety-driven?

    *Re: auteurist criticism, it happens in vernacular traditions as well as more institutionalized work; thinking about creators is something that fans do. (And not only fans: Bart’s “Archie” book almost becomes an auteurist study by stealth, given the prominence of cartoonist Harry Lucey in his analysis!)