[Comics] as Reading – Preface: An Apology for [Comics]

Preface: An Apology for [Comics]

This book, like its occasional subject, is the product of many false starts, many attempts to pin things down that, like the goblins of folklore and our intellectual history, refuse to be pinned or, when cornered, to speak in anything but a delightful gibberish. Definitions of comics are kin to goblins: numerous, varied, and so dependent upon disparate yet related cultural traditions that, though they overlap, only ever eerily resemble each other. It is all but commonplace to assume now that there are as many definitions as there are scholars, and no scholarly work in comic studies can get going without first explaining just what this thing is that it wishes to address.

The most proper initial gesture would seem to be to survey the scholarly landscape by excavating conceptions and constructions of comics from a wide variety of texts: journal articles, monographs, reviews, instruction guides, and so forth. So taken have I been with this line of thinking that I myself sought every definition I could find in every nook and cranny, high and low, scholarly and pedestrian, simple and complex. I thought, stupidly, that by carefully brushing off the dust in the manner of a diligent archaeologist I might discover all the relics with which I might piece together a meaningful consensus or, lacking that, determine where they went wrong and piece together something newer and better, stronger, more lasting than the recent artifacts of my colleagues. This is a fool’s errand, for the best anyone can ever hope for in thinking the what of comics is to manufacture yet another relic that, hopefully, some later scholar might stumble upon and find some value in.

This book too is a goblin, an annoyance to myself and, one hopes, to anyone who might approach the what of comics in the way I and so many others have up to now. For the what question of comics cannot be meaningfully isolated from a far more [im]pertinent when, meaning the ever elusive question of origins or of historiography. The more one latches onto a purely formalist theory of “graphic narrative” or “sequential art” or “graphic novels” or “funny papers” or “Punch pictures” or “drawn strips” or “image/text” or what have you, the looser the necessary constraints of the when question become. Many are perfectly satisfied with thinking of the Papyrus of Ani, one of the many so-called Egyptian books of the dead, as more or less analogous to Peanuts, due almost entirely to the fantasia of comics formalism. Thankfully for us, Ani has been dead for several millennia, so no one expects us to dig up his corpse and ask whether he might consider it woefully impertinent to treat his handbook for traversing the afterlife as fundamentally similar to the serial anxieties of a balding little boy. Even the most cogent treatment of a long comics traditio, The Early Comic Strip, is predicated upon a rather arbitrary formalist definition, one which raises more than the occasional eyebrow. Perhaps if Kunzle had ever written his prophesied third volume, I would be eating my words now, but what we have, seeing as it never actually gets around to talking about American comics of the 19th and 20th centuries, leaves a great deal to be desired: a substantial, learned, and detailed two volume preface to a skeletal argument.

Moreover, recent attempts to answer the what question with a who answer not only run the risk of simply displacing the problems of essentialist definitions (i.e. making overdeterminative statements about readers rather than about a range of texts) but of in fact compounding the problem, for generally a rather narrow range of readerly domains (fandom or Beaty’s “comics worlds”) is propped up as the somewhat diffuse social institution whose readily observable constituents determine what comics are and, perhaps, more to the point, are not. Not to say that studies of comics institutions are out of line, but to imply that comic texts are simply a function of those institutions is to generate even more theoretical problems than are presumably solved. In fact, I would argue that no theoretical problems are solved and that many more are introduced. Formalist definitions of comics, for all their faults, at least very rarely make presumptions about readership, be it potential or actual. To presume that readership or parties of interest can be limited to certain quantifiable and thus objectifiable domains is to make one essentialist error; to assume that “comics” is simply the object of that domain’s interest is to compound another upon it.

So it seems, as Corey Creekmur once put it on a radio show that had the great lack of foresight to choose your dear author as a guest, comics theory always seems to lag behind comics practice. For the great genius of comic artists lies not in their talents for creating beautiful line art but in their capacity to upend the table upon which the best comics definitions scholars can muster have been laid out, just as critics begin to congratulate each other for putting them in place. The what question, then, is always going to be impossible to answer, or, at least, persistently undermined by the mischievous goblin of artistic license, because of the non-provisional nature that essentialist claims, no matter how articulate or complex, cannot avoid. This fact leads to an important clue as to the underlying logic of what follows in this book: comic artists, and thus comics, read their own conventions and, in so doing, potentially satirize and parody them in a manner always amenable to comic form, broadly understood, even when the intent and the effect are in no way “humorous.” As Itō Gō would remind us, comics change (manga wa kawaru), so any attempt to define comics or, more loosely, try to explain them as an artifact of human culture must keep this provisional nature in mind.

Thus my own goblin, banging away on the pots and pans in this ever-coalescing comics studies discipline (bleh!), whilst trying to always keep in mind this provisional nature that comics practice seems to point to without naming, will tackle a different interrogative: how (with occasional digression into the uneasy territory of why). To this end, I have arranged—or perhaps more precisely stumbled upon a set of texts that, for various reasons (simple ignorance, willful disregard, etc.), never quite find their way into the comics theory game, even when their creators (Kitazawa Rakuten especially) are recognized as titanic figures in comics history. The case of Dave Sim is particularly telling of our critical blindness, because it seems his formal ingenuity, which to my mind quite obviously challenges our critical orthodoxies, goes largely overlooked due almost entirely to offense taken to the politics as manifest in his work and numerous public diatribes. This high-minded disregard is to our detriment, dear reader, for we are likely to miss what is most deeply upsetting in his comics, far more so than the specters of Sim’s “misogyny,” namely the manner in which Cerebus parodies both the comics industry and comics texts themselves. [see first comment below]

If the comics as reading thesis holds, then—and it may not; after all, I did just make it up—the other major objects of inquiry are the milieux into which comics are so often embedded, be it the variegated print media of the latter half of the 19th century or the sharing framework of social media in which comic strips especially have experienced a revival of late. This embeddedness is key to understanding the how question, because it provides the cultural/visual framework to which comics respond by poaching/interpreting/reading the other texts that surround them. Thus, comics are both amenable to the ways in which media change and help to drive those changes by steadily undermining by repurposing the formal properties upon which genres and forms otherwise seem well founded. Jared Gardner’s Projections is a decent first step in this direction, in the way it addresses the seriality of comic strips in relation to the seriality of contemporary films, but, bogged down by its own serial purview, proceeds to peg a series of common and easy critical targets to the film parallel the text has saddled itself with. Film is just one of the visual forms/media that comics have appropriated or been appropriated by, and it certainly was not the first.

The underlying ethos of this book, then, is to disorient rather than make clear; to engage comics historically without being particularly historiographic (at least in a genealogical sense); to examine texts, some well worn and some hardly travailed at all, that lay bare the ossified and ossifying assumptions about comics upon which we so facilely and regularly rely; to survey with a healthy suspicion—a suspicion to be leveled as well against the very text you are reading—this thing that in practice we regularly name comics, even while holding any sense of what that might mean in abeyance; to meditate on how comics read without ever, like a good adept, landing upon anything but a provisional conception of the way things are. To that end, I would like to employ a silly but useful lexical trick, to bracket the very word [comics], as if it were a spurious author’s name that Classicists cannot quite let go of, due to the useful-even-if-ridiculous unifying principle of authorship, or the emending of a quotation so as to make sense recontextualized, even though the bracketed words, properly speaking, are not there. In researching this book, I have consistently been struck by how [comics] are there quite powerfully in the moment of reading, but the second you try to extrapolate to general principles, [comics] as such begin to evaporate. As soon as you try to lay hands upon the goblin, you discover the pots and pans are lying in the cabinet just as you left them.

The house of theory is, for the moment, at peace, because the goblin, like most modern wage slaves, splits his time between two jobs. The second axis of critique in what follows, far more implicit, is a muted political diatribe on the unnecessary downward pressures that so often attend to [comics] studies but are recognizable throughout studies of visual media, for while the theoretical Zeitgeist may have moved toward a certain non-distinction between image and text, legally and practically they are still treated as different, so while not a press in the world would think twice about a scholar’s quoting the entirety of, say, a lyric poem in the body of her work, the very same presses would demand she procure express written permission for the inclusion of even a single panel of a “graphic novel.” I have not sought nor do I intend to seek permission to use any of the images included in this book. Most of the images used herein do not fall under copyright anyway, but with regard to the few that do, I have made sure that they fall within the legal doctrine of fair use, given that this is an educational/critical work made publicly available at no cost to its reader, beyond tedium, and at great expense to myself. Should this not assuage your wrath, oh guardians of intellectual property, I should hasten to note that, as stated above, the texts I treat have a relatively low public profile, so one effect of writing about them is to, in fact, make them more visible and potentially more commercially viable. To compel me to remove reference to them would be self-defeating. Moreover, I would feel personally compelled to explain why it was those items were removed, increasing the likelihood that it would reflect badly on yourselves and your IP.

The other purposes in side-stepping the whole world of academic presses are twofold: 1) not to permit someone else to profit off my hard work, even as I am given nothing in the way of royalties (quite the common practice nowadays among scholarly presses), and 2) to avoid the whole rigmarole of peer review and patronage that stifles creativity, enforces conformity to critical norms that one may even be explicitly critiquing, and that for the most part values the approval of established voices over saying something provocative or interesting. Not to say that provocations and interest are never generated by such a system, but, when it happens, it is typically by accident rather than by design. Should my commitment to these principles be doubted, dear reader, I would note that a version of the chapter on Cerebus that follows went through the entire editing process and was ready to be printed in an anthology on Sim, but when the publisher demanded I sign over my copyright or not have the work published, I withdrew my submission. For I am not an academic—well, one might describe me as para-academic—and I have little concern for the pressures and self-mollifications visited upon junior faculty for whom it is never enough to have their work butchered-to-be-published, but it must be butchered/published in the most reputable ways possible, so that the little-seeing eye of tenure review might not look down with displeasure. I am, at best, a voyeur panting heavily against the window panes, confused as to why everyone at the fancy parties dresses so uncomfortably, yet drooling over the hors d’oeuvres (i.e. research budgets) and the open bar (i.e. travel allowances).

Hundreds of pages have I penned—literally penned; I write nearly all of what I have to say by hand first—most of which I still believe, although much embarrasses me greatly, in preparation for writing this book, but hardly any of it do I intend to use. I mention this not as a self-congratulatory gesture about how I am the hardest working man in show business, or what have you, but to serve as a warning that what you have here is simply a more polished version of working notes. I beseech you not to hold me to them or, at least, should you be unwilling to resist the urge to crucify an author on her opus, recognize that I associate myself with them only under duress, for tomorrow I might be as critical of them as you are. As a result, we might easily become fast friends.

NEXT: Chapter 1 pt. 1


  1. An early draft of this thing, for lack of a better term, was based on a lengthy article I wrote in late 2010 on Sim’s work, which contains the germ of many of the concepts concerning representation that appear throughout. As a result, I had originally intended to include that piece as one of the chapters here, but as I began to write the rest, it became increasingly apparent that it no longer fit with the direction the rest of the project had taken, even if it was the intellectual ancestor of what I was producing. I’ll find some other forum for it, perhaps even publishing it here as an appendix. The strikethrough, then, is meant to indicate that it has been excised even while leaving behind the palimpsest of what was.

  2. charleshatfield · · Reply

    …while not a press in the world would think twice about a scholar’s quoting the entirety of, say, a lyric poem in the body of her work, the very same presses would demand she procure express written permission for the inclusion of even a single panel of a “graphic novel.”

    Sadly not true with regard to the first clause. I have colleagues who have indeed been forced to secure (i.e. pay for) permissions to reproduce even parts of lyric poems in their published scholarship. I was surprised and disheartened to learn this a few years ago, but now I understand it is standard practice (varying, of course, according to each press’s degree of nerve and each rights-holder’s aggressiveness).

    Re: your characterization of academic peer review, I do not believe it is reducible to a matter of patronage; on the contrary, I think it important. I also don’t share your concerns over the rise of a comics studies “discipline.” However, I do share your frustration over the (not universal but standard) practice of requiring academic authors to surrender their copyrights. I intend to push harder in this area in my own future practice.

    Suffice to say that, while I’m skeptical re: your characterizations of institutional forces, I look forward to delving into your arguments about [comics] as they unfold. I’ve had a (thus far too quick) look at your Conclusion, and I’m intrigued re: alter-textuality and comics as reading . I look forward to productive disorientation! Good luck.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Charles!

      While I am familiar with the problems that attain to the work of, say, Silverstein or Zukofsky, it never felt like a widespread problem, so I thought the claim still held up, more or less. I know in my own work on contemporary Japanese poets as well as Anne Carson, I’ve never run into problems, though one man’s illuminating anecdote is another man’s exceptional case.

      With regard to my vague concerns over discipline here, I should note that I deal extensively with a distinction between “legitimacy” and “the power to legitimize” in comics studies in the third chapter, so there is more to my qualms than just a sense of being ill-at-ease.

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