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.