35. Comics Criticism Isn’t Much Fun

Advance warning: today’s post will not be one of my several thousand word diatribes on something you only vaguely care about, since I have already spent a fair share of the day writing something to that effect.  Today’s post will take the form of a rant… or a reflection.  A reflective rant, like looking at your face in one of those funhouse mirrors.

I had hoped to be done with my book project by now, but when you plan to write 30ish page chapters and end up writing 50ish page chapters, it doesn’t take long before you’ve written more than you had originally planned to, and you’re still not done.  That said, I have one chapter left, on webcomics and the legacy of print comic strips (with a likely and lengthy digression into the formal assumptions underlying early computer typesetting and display interface layout), so I don’t feel as if it will never get done, but I am disappointed that things didn’t get finished before I became busy again.

In the midst of all this theorizing and hypothesizing and making a big deal out of how people in the 19th century talked about photography, I’ve been reading and reading so much comics theory and criticism in so many fucking languages I think my brain is about to leak out of my ears.  I just spent a few days spitting out 4000+ words on Takeuchi Osamu for my forthcoming bit on the manga studies column at Comics Forum, and I never want to read a single word the man has written ever again.  Hopefully, when I look it over tomorrow, before sending it off for review, I won’t hate everything I’ve written, as I typically do.

Which reminds me, if you have yet to read the manga studies posts there since Jaqueline Berndt’s first one back in May, I would strongly suggest checking them out.  Ron Stewart has a piece on Miyamoto Hirohito’s and Isao Shimizu’s understanding of Rakuten’s place in manga history, and there is Jessica Bauwens-Sugimoto’s post on BL manga research in Japanese as well as CJ Suzuki’s on the manga critic Ishiko Junzō.  The academicky focus may not be for everyone, but what we are building toward is something that I know Jaqueline has often lamented, that a sense of how manga fit into a particular critical milieu has been sorely lacking outside of Japanese language discourse.  You should, like, check it out, man.

What, Exactly, is a Comic Anyway?

The chapter I just finished working on was focused on comics studies discourse itself, and it is the one that ended up the least like I had initially planned.  After working my way through Smolderen’s Naissances de la bande dessinée (and realizing that the recent English “translation” thereof is, in fact, a substantial revision), Miodrag’s Comics and Language (again!), and Ole Frahm’s Die Sprache des Comics, it became… not clear… but vaguely apparent that there are a number of assumptions underlying formalist approaches that aren’t exactly screaming to make themselves known.

I was struck again and again by a rather naive faith in, for lack of a better phrase, the ameliorative powers of formalist criticism.  The assumption was that by focusing exclusively on structural features of comics (use of language, page layout, and so forth) instead of, say, ideology or subjective response (Mongo like Garfield [and lasagna]!), one’s work would become more rigorous and, dare I say, appropriate for publication in an academic setting.  Now, if you’ve ever read a fucking thing I’ve written, you can imagine that my sympathies don’t precisely lie with the academic set, despite my training and, more often than not, my mode of argumentation being derived from that weird weird world.

What also struck me was how deadly serious so many critics want to be about their work.  Comics studies must become a proper discipline, comics studies must make sure that scholar/practitioners are sufficiently rigorous or knowledgeable of critical theory, and we must all do important and serious things so that we too might be regarded as important and serious.  I spent the vast preponderance of this summer rolling my eyes.

I have always operated under the assumption that comics are something from which a modicum of entertainment and pleasure ought to be had, and therefore maybe, just maybe, one might also derive a similar, even if far more muted, pleasure from analyzing it and thinking deep thoughts.  This, apparently, is just not to be, if comics studies is to become what people need it to be in order to have stable jobs in the academy.

By this cast, a comic becomes, perversely, not an assemblage of panels and speech balloons or even the adventures of teenagers given far too much power for their own good but… *shiver*… literature.  It creates a scholarly environment where we have, on the one hand, a veritable mountain of treatments of “graphic novels” (not necessarily a bad thing, mind you) and a near complete absence of considerations of, say, webcomics.  Moreover, you have a critical environment that remains surprisingly oblivious to the very interesting work of amateur critics on the intertubes (Escher Girls is a good example) who do the important work of calling people on their bullshit and making comics better for us all.

Now, I love literature, so much so that I wrote an entire dissertation about a number of obscure poets in a number of obscure languages.  That said, what I have always loved about comics is their capacity to be both high- and low-brow, that, in comics, this distinction is revealed to be, well, rather silly.  If I were ever forced into a position where I would have to regard them as exclusively crass or classy, I’m not so sure I’d want to be a comics scholar anymore.

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4 comments

  1. […] On the scholarly end of things, the What Is Manga? blog balances things out by arguing that “Comics Criticism Isn’t Much Fun.” […]

  2. I share your concerns and second them. The need to “science-up” the study of cultural artifacts and actions is undoubtedly useful as a long-term project towards greater understanding and knowledge, but it drains the life and the joy out of too many worthy things. I had occasion a few months ago to dip my toes back into academic-ness and ended up at a symposium on fan cultures. It was a bit odd but also poignant. A typical panel discussion would start on a topic, digress into complaints about making the material look like a worthy project for the thesis by grinding it into fine formalist and/or quantifiable powder and then give up and go off the rails (as I was one of only 3 males present) into a shipping-fest. “Disenchantment” hovered above all their efforts. The elder tenured gods must be appeased! I have no idea why – the chances of landing a job-for-life teaching and researching their fave thing are currently very very slim. It was painfully obvious that they all were very intense fans of their particular stuff and I respect the heck out of that kind of enthusiasm. I sat in the back and wished fervently that they never lose what they love.

    Congratulations and “perseverance furthers” on your book project. I think this is the way of the future and I think such works can make a far greater contribution than anything that has been made to serve a spurious “smells like academic formal literary criticism” agenda. Perhaps the interwebz will provide a different, better way…

  3. I definitely feel and understand this. I’m a beginning comic scholar myself, and some of the discussions I read on Listservs and in articles make me wonder if someone purposefully tried to take the fun out of comics just to seem more reputable.

    You can be both entertaining and be doing important research. You can talk about a book that has potty humor and not be condemning it and STILL sound academic.

    There’s definitely an immense danger in simplifying comics into just juvenile, but in trying to prove that they’re so much more than that, some people seem to be rebelling in the complete opposite direction. Moderation in all things.

    (On a personal side note, I’ve been fortunate enough to be advised by two scholars who never take themselves or their work too seriously–while still being prestigious in their fields. I wouldn’t have continued in the field if they’d been stuffy, self-aggrandizing, and pretentious.)

    1. After writing my first book, working on other projects, and generally just not being closely affiliated with the academy, I’ve gotten to a point where I just not longer see what the point of it all is. I suppose the founding of the CSS and what not is a good thing, if people one day want to have tenure track or semi-stable positions in lit, media studies, or art history programs (to name a few), but I’m not clear as to what that kind of professionalization is meant to achieve. My fear, as I noted in chapter 3, is that the largely unstated endgame of academic comics scholarship is to attain a position where one has, for better or worse, the power to legitimize, to make micro-canons or lists of important texts for “important” critical domains, which, now that I’ve had a number of years scholarship under my belt, all too often get revealed to be simply the latest intellectual fad (c.f. digital humanities).

      In other words, for me, the problem runs much deeper than individual personalities or even the politics of an emerging field in the context of established ones. At the moment, all comics studies seems to have is what any other discipline has, the same smorgasbord of “theory” from which one might pick and choose to apply to an arbitrary–though generally coherent–range of texts. I wrote an entire book that, like most academic works, will go largely unread, in an attempt to rethink all of this, only to come to the realization that it was likely not worth the effort. To put it yet another way, when I look at comics studies, I don’t see a renaissance, I see mannerism.

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