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2007 archive at Andy Hartzell: the Blog

Reading Comics


September 25th, 2007

I met Douglas Wolk at the San Diego Comicon. He had included “Fox Bunny Funny” on his blog’s “Hit List”, and he was nice enough to come by the Top Shelf booth and introduce himself. I told him I was excited about his new book, Reading Comics, and would be attending his panel ant the con. And then I didn’t go.

Actually, I was a little reluctant to read the book. The write up in the convention guide had mentioned that Reading Comics introduced a “new theory” of comics criticism, which set off alarms for me. I am suspicious of literary theory in general–it’s inherently reductive, and it elevates the critic over the authors he considers. And I was a little concerned that, if Wolk did a good job of selling his “new theory”, it would creep into my brain and affect the way I make comics.

Thankfully, the convention guide was full of crap. With Reading Comics, Wolk is not attempting to introduce any new theory. Rather, he is simply trying to clear a space for a legitimate critical dialog about comics. This is a wholly admirable goal and one which, it turns out, is more difficult than it would seem.

In order to create this space, Wolk has to battle several enemies. First, of course, there are those who think comics are inherently beneath critical consideration. These villains are the easiest to dispose of, since the tide of history is against them. With each new Persepolis or Jimmy Corrigan, each graphic novel that penetrates beyond the comics ghetto into the larger literary consciousness, the position of the comics-disparagers grows more precarious. Fifteen years ago, a work like Maus could be treated as an aberration, but it’s harder to do so today. Still, there are old-school critics who will never accept comics as real literature. I recently came across this essay by Joseph Epstein on Literary life in America, a life which, in his opinion, is being snuffed out. One of the concluding paragraphs:

“To be replaced by what? Perhaps a great messy mélange of low- and middlebrow writing, admixed with highbrow pretensions, with graphic novels taken as seriously as written ones, screen and television writers being celebrated as if they were of the stature of Thomas Mann or Albert Camus. And yet one wonders how long this lowering of standards, this infantilization of literature, can continue.”

Comics as infantilism. Not a new idea, of course. Refuting this idea is one of the prime jobs of the comics critic.

But not the only job. There is also the other side of the cultural divide to contend with, the postmodernists and deconstructivists who reduce literature to a pile of signifiers and treat standards of excellence as mere displays of cultural chauvanism. It’s particularly tricky for the comics critic to engage these opponents. After all, it is the postmodern movemnt, largely, that blurred the boundary between high and low art, thus allowing comics to cross over into the “legitimate” art world. Yet the same movement frowns on the sort of critical distinctions that allow us to separate the masterpieces from the mediocre.

Then there are those critics who are willing to seriously consider individual comic books, but who insist on viewing them through the lens of other mediums; novels, say, or movies.

And finally there’s the comics industry itself, with its big old inferiority complex. It’s the ugly, socially-awkward kid that all the other kids pick on. So when it’s finally offered the homecoming crown of social legitimacy, it naturally expects the bucket of pigs’ blood will follow.

(Is that a good metaphor, or am I pushing it a little?)

The first, say, 2/5 of the book is Wolk staking out his territory and defending it against these opponents. For the skeptics, he patiently explains what comics are, how they work, why they constitute a legitimate and powerful art form in their own right, and how they should be judged. For the true-believers, he makes a case for the value of outgrowing our cultish attachment to the form, that tendency to defend against the disparagers by indiscriminately celebrating everything about the form. It’s good journalistic prose–accessible, intelligent, funny. Convincing, too–though, being more-or-less in his camp to begin with, I didn’t require much convincing.

I did have a few minor quibbles with Wolk’s message, but I’ll save these for another enty.

Catch-up


September 25th, 2007