I can imagine many of my formerly regular readers have wondered where I disappeared to all of a sudden, after quite a long stretch of regular posting, yet, I can also imagine hardly anyone paid much mind. My hiatus was never meant to be permanent, and, as you will come to discover in the coming weeks, it was/isn’t, yet I also never intended to be away for so long and thought my book project would be complete long ago. My habit of diving down ever deeper rabbit holes got the best of me at times and extended an otherwise productive process that was chugging along at pace, though I hope the product of my intellectual divagations will be of interest.
So, I wrote a book–well, I’ve written most of a book. I am in the process of working through a final chapter/introduction (no, you did not read that wrong), but since, by my calculations, I won’t be posting any of it until some time late in July, I think I have more than enough time to cross my i’s and dot my t’s. I wrote (read: am writing… still… will perhaps always be writing for the rest of my life, even after I’ve finished posting “it”) a book that, at first, tried to hew closely to a comics framework but over time, given my eclectic (read: comparative) intellectual interests, grew to include larger comments on print culture, historiography, even photography. I have a lot to say about photography, especially how photographs were reproduced in print periodicals. I can imagine you will be tempted to gloss over much of this, but I beseech you, dear reader, to slow down and pay careful attention. There is more there than meets the eye.
The book claims in many explicit and implicit ways to be about comics, and it is, but a more accurate claim might be that the book uses comics as a primary point of entry into larger questions of textuality, especially how textual forms reflect and become embedded in each other, which, nevertheless, once carefully–or differently–considered might be read back onto comics and how we read them. “How we read them” is deceptively simple: in an ordinary sense, to be sure, how one reads a comic as given according to received conventions but also how, interpretively, we, and I realize this is an awkward expression, read comics into being, meaning, how a particular interpretive act construes a comic as such. This is where the “larger questions” rear their many heads, but I promise you there is a hydra underlying it all.
I feel perfectly comfortable publishing this book, serially, over the better part of a year on this blog, despite its supposedly limited manga purview, not only because Japanese comics theory figures prominently within it–in fact, Okamoto Ippei and Tsurumi Shunsuke are probably the only theorists/critics who make an appearance without being at least partially debunked–but because the research for this book in addition to my many earlier posts have made clear to me that any arbitrarily limited consideration of the question that gives this blog its name is self-defeating. Such limits make it all too tempting simply to repeat received wisdoms, which, while wise after a fashion, nevertheless leave much unexplained. I have gotten flack in the past for focusing, perhaps, overly much on limit cases, examples which undermine otherwise perfectly tolerable modes of thinking and methodologies, examples which detract from a concerted effort to understand what’s typical about comics, what, more or less, accepting that there exists any number of outliers, we might point to something and say with a degree of certitude, “that’s a comic.”
Over the past few years, as comics studies has congealed–like gelatin in a mold–into something like a discipline without a proper institutional home, I have noticed repeatedly, though not with any obvious conspiracy, a desire to finally just get over comics studies’ growing pains, be they theoretical or historiographic or whatever, so that “we” (I’m not always certain whom this is meant to include) can get down to the ordinary work of ordinary scholarship, of creating and developing academic programs, of manufacturing all those institutionally conspicuous signs of having arrived already. I understand this impulse to a degree but, as any regular reader of this blog knows well, have never been particularly sympathetic to it. For example, I was in Columbus for the most recent ICAF, and I was even on site when the meeting announcing the Comics Studies Society was held and could have skipped my lunch like many others did in order to attend. Yet, I skipped that meeting to continue a single conversation left over from the previous panel, the very panel I was on, the panel I could have been removed from with little lasting effect.
The lack of interest in what I’ve had to say at conferences over the years has been deafening. I have had any number of thoughts about this. At first, I took it personally, as if I had somehow failed to communicate what was so fucking awesome about these texts. Then I took it less personally and assumed, with some justification, despite a consistent and widespread expression of interest in Japanesey things among comics scholars, that surprisingly few were willing to put forth the work to meet halfway myself or any of the others who have made sallies beyond the parochial confines of mangagaku. Of late, I have had to recognize how there are institutional barriers to integrating comics studies in the Japanese-speaking sphere with the wider, international network things like ICAF and CSS try to represent, barriers which I alone have little power to chip away at. I should note that the reaction to my work has not been complete silence, but I do regularly encounter an exasperation with a cultural milieu and attendant critical tradition that remains not only opaque but surprisingly resistant at times to the international comics studies community.
While writing this book, I had to think a great deal about audience–no, I had to think differently about audience. Way back when, while I was conceptualizing the tone and content of this blog, I imagined something like an ecumenical readership, and, to that end, I tried to create a blog that would be as useful to the academically as fannishly inclined. I’m not sure I succeeded in doing so, but in the two years and change since I began that project, I have had to come to grips with the fact that maybe holding out many hands to many huddled masses is fundamentally wrongheaded. Something Toph Marshall said at ICAF has stuck with me. Among all the self-congratulatory expressions of having arrived that attended the foundation of the CSS, he gave voice to a necessary warning, that if any of this is to last or speak to a broader intellectual community, “we” (again, I dunno) need to make sense and appeal to those who have little or no background or prior interest in comics. Here I’ve spent all this time thinking about how to live among the many nations of comics thinkerati that it never even occurred to me to look to a wider and potentially even more hostile/indifferent world.
I can imagine that, for both the academically and fannishly concerned with comics, much of what appears in this serial book will be extraordinarily disorienting. That’s the point. Let me be clear: disorientation is the primary means by which I have tried to put the already and potentially interested on an equal footing. If at times you find yourself, dear reader, at pains to understand why it is I have digressed in a particular way, then you’re on the right track.
The several times I’ve seen Phoebe Gloeckner speak over the years, especially since she’s begun and repeatedly re-invented her more than decade long project documenting the violence in Ciudad Juarez, I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut… but in a good way, if it is even possible to say you have had a good experience confronted with the incessant and infuriating mundanity of serial violence. It’s a disorienting experience for a number of reasons. Gloeckner is not what you would call an eloquent speaker. She’s disorganized, she tries to present far too much material, she stops abruptly and just stares at the screen, she makes weird faces, etc. but the total effect of it always shakes me from my complacency. Though I drink heavily in the aftermath, I think I’m much better for it.
Which brings me to why I decided to publish my book project here and in this way. As my preface next week will make clear, from the beginning I had in mind to make this work as widely accessible as possible, which led me originally to the digital repository of my current university of affiliation (the University of Iowa, if it matters), but I as I began to edit the finished chapters for nicely formatted booky-looking pdf’s, I realized that one of the things I always liked about the blog is the ability to engage with reader responses, even well after the fact. It occurred to me that I wanted something not only broadly accessible but open, subject to revision, in which a discussion about the text, be it my own later thoughts or someone else’s, could be there alongside the relevant passages. I want y’all to speak your mind[s], and don’t be afraid to be as polemical with me as I am with the critics I treat. I often respond far better to insult than praise, though praise will not go unappreciated.
The text will appear in 2000-ish word chunks, sometimes more sometimes less, which, while part of a longer stream of thought, I hope will present each time something like a coherent point. The pace, one post a week, is not merely a nod to my original working method for the blog but to give time for each idea, especially the digressive ones, to percolate, to stew, to… whatever the metaphor, give time for consideration. Beginning next Sunday with the Preface, the book will run well into August, presuming I do not add to it substantially along the way, which, I have to admit, I might, especially if in response to a particularly insightful comment, as disorienting for me as I hope this text is for you. I will also keep a running track of published sections, so that, should you come to all this at a later date, you will not be entirely lost.
So, without further ado, I present to you: