PREVIOUS: Chapter 1 pt. 1

Discursive constructions are not merely a function of some aggregate of persons whose opinions are frustratingly unknowable but of institutions whose practices, and thus their ramifications for categorically determining what [comics] are, are all too visible and thus legible.  There is no better example of this than a public library, in particular my local public library.  [Comics] are shelved there in at least two locations: downstairs in the children’s section and upstairs with all the nonfiction and other books shelved according to the Dewey decimal system.  So, for instance, all the comic adaptations of Studio Ghibli films[1] except for Princess Mononoke (Mononoke-hime) are shelved downstairs with the children’s books, whereas Mononoke, perhaps because of its graphic violence, is shelved upstairs with the “adult” books.  Despite this, all of these titles are published under the aegis of the Ghibli Library imprint, and as far as Ghibli as a company is concerned, these texts are all fundamentally similar things.  Now, it would be too easy to say that the librarians at my local public library simply made a mistake.  If their intention in separating them is the assumption that a young child perusing Garfield collections might be unduly shocked by samurai casually having their heads chopped off, then I can see where this separation might be apt.  Yet, it also speaks to the way in which the judgments of others, as reflected in certain seemingly mundane practices like shelving a book somewhere, can have a subtle and lasting influence on the judgments of others by altering the textual landscape as disclosed to them when they are learning and establishing their own systems for making distinctions between kinds of text and how to approach them.  This is the very same library where my own daughter spends a great deal of time learning from an environment that neither she nor I have even the simplest much less total control over, and there is more to this environment that the exclusion of some [comics] and the inclusion of others.

David Wiesner Flotsam

David Wiesner Flotsam

One of the sturdiest walls against which [comics] theory regularly beats its head to little avail is the regular and pervasive distinction between children’s picture books and [comics], made all the more quizzical by the fact that for much of the 20th century, nearly all comics were denigrated as mere juvenilia.  It is incredibly hard to justify this distinction on formal grounds alone, why, for instance, my local library shelves Marcia Williams’ comicky adaptations of classic literature in the [comics] section of the children’s room but place David Wiesner’s Flotsam or Sector 7, both of which make clear use of panels as a storytelling device, with picture books like Mo Willems’ Knufflebunny or Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus on the shelf below.  It would be easy to say that these decisions are simply arbitrary, which they are, of course, but we would miss what these examples of [comics] arbitration say about my incidental object of inquiry.  Even more worth contemplating is Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, which not only emulates tried and true conventions of [comic] storytelling but one of the most important American comics of the early 20th century, Windsor McCay’s Little Nemo in SlumberlandSendak worked in comics,  and much of his “children’s book” illustration all but says, “this is a [comic],” yet there it sits on the same shelves as Wiesner and Willems.  This is because we think of Sendak as children’s author, even though this may not be entirely appropriate, so it is rather difficult to pull out one text and say, “this is a [comic]; it should go over here,” for, practically speaking, a children’s librarian might want to keep all of Sendak’s books in the same place, so that patrons might more easily find them.  Yet, in attending to this perfectly reasonable presumption, the act reifies Sendak as children’s book author and plays down the possibility of reading his oeuvre as one way of doing [comics].

Maurice Sendak In the Night Kitchen

Maurice Sendak In the Night Kitchen

Windsor McCay Little Nemo in Slumberland 8 Nov. 1908

Windsor McCay Little Nemo in Slumberland 8 Nov. 1908

So much attention is paid in popular media and the fantasies of concerned parents to the content of media for children and adolescents—whether they are too violent or obscene or sexual or what have you—but I would argue that what these media are about pales in comparison to how young minds encounter them and how a particular set of textual categories are disclosed to them.  After all, children live in our societies; they will pick up on swearing and sex and brutality, whether we want them to or not.  The how is important, because it shapes in ever so subtle ways how children becoming adolescents becoming adults learn to distinguish between not just formal and genre categories but between appropriate and inappropriate (between upstairs and downstairs), distinctions that later in life they may become complicit in reinforcing in the generations of readers who follow them.  Public librarians are certainly aware of the how, thus the attention paid to programming and integrating newer media into the library, though they perhaps do not think of their practical activities as having any grand, underlying, theoretical design.  This is, in part, what I mean by “the importance of proximity” above: within this one large “children’s room” in a library there are toys, puzzles, games, books, videos, and audio CDs, between which certain arbitrary distinctions are being made but which also, because of their proximity, invite a certain conceptual overlap.  As such, any distinction and any transgression of those distinctions is interpretive, not in the sense of the high-minded speculations of critical fantasy regularly published in journals or scribbled into the awkward prose of student compositions, but deceptively simple, practical, and hands-on.

A certain kind of textual landscape is disclosed to a child (and to us wizened folk) in toto within which there are certain meaningful distinctions between kinds of text and modes of reading/interpretation/play that attend to them.  Likewise, a child has a complete sense of all of this, and it is through this totalizing conceptual framework that she makes sense of the world as disclosed to her.  Of course, many of her “readings,” as it were, and her categorical nominations are, by the standards of our own conceptual frameworks, “wrong,” but that fact alone does not alter the completeness of her understanding or her ability to make sense of whatever she encounters.  This totalizing understanding, then, our own as well as hers, is subject to constant revision based both upon her/our own life experiences as well as any ongoing historical changes in the many, often contradictory, discourses that attempt to describe the world.  These shifts could either be experiences of conceptual change within our lifetimes (e.g. how “everything changed” after the attack of Sept. 11, 2001) or what Kenneth Burke refers to as an “historical unconscious,” i.e. “[t]he universal incorporation of the past within the present,” or what Julia Kristeva sometimes calls (when she is not frustrated with how the term became overused) intertextualité, the “happenstance of chancey codes” whose origins remain obscure but whose ramifications are all too apparent.  We encounter these seemingly accidental codes—this is where I would part ways with Kristeva, for there is a completely different, non-genealogical way of thinking about origins, namely, originating again and again in our complicit, sometimes conscientious sometimes unconscious (or simply lazy) repetition of those codes.

This creates a rather complex way of being (and understanding of that way of being) in which the world as disclosed and understood on our behalf (or against our will) by the numerous discourses of it is acquiesced to (e.g. the lazy repetition of people calling something “gay” as if to say “bad” or “stupid” without any sense of what their choice of terminology implies), some combination of acquiesced to and resisted (for instance, using the word [comic] in order to effectively communicate to one’s peers, all the while eyeing it with a healthy suspicion), or just resisted out of hand.  Anyone who has had to deal with a child (or a petulant visiting assistant professor – who, me?) knows that her first experience of control over her own life typically takes the form of simple refusal.  Children lack the basic motor skills and social standing to assert an independent way of life for themselves, so saying “no” to every perfectly reasonable assertion or demand upon their time serves as a much needed if only temporary relief from being almost wholly dependent upon the whims of a much larger human being.  This blanket refusal, however, is occasionally instructive, not for the child, but for the adult whose assertions and demands have no basis in his desires for himself or his progeny but are merely another lazy repetition of cultural expectations.  The child’s refusal might remind him of his own desire to refuse, long ago buried by the pressing, immanent need to “get by” in a world he dislikes but cannot meaningfully change.  To bring this back to the domain of immediate relevance, consider how many [comic] texts and [comics] studies of late have tried to escape the prejudices attendant to [comics] as juvenilia.  While initially admirable, what has happened in the wake of this escape is a valorization of the so-called “graphic novel” (don’t make me name names!) over, for example, superhero comics or newspaper strips–a caricature, to be sure, but not without truth.  Of course, these two [comic] domains do get some shrift in the scholarly literature, but they are dwarfed by the sheer number of papers and articles and book chapters on Maus or Fun Home or Persepolis—all worthy texts, mind you, but currently at risk, as far as I am concerned, of becoming critically overwrought.  A return to juvenilia, to a doggedly juvenile way of thinking, might be what is needed to prevent Marjane Satrapi from becoming another Emily Dickinson.

[1] These comics are made up of stills from Miyazaki Hayao’s feature length animated films with added sound effects and dialogue written into speech balloons.

NEXT: Chapter 1, pt. 3



  1. […] picture book), and how it came to be in my possession (a book fair at my daughter’s school [c.f. libraries in chapter 1]), that it is not entirely appropriate to call Say’s book a [comic] or [manga].  Yet it […]

  2. “juvenilia” is not correct as it refers to the youth of a work’s producer, not its audience.

    1. Oops. My bad. That was always my understanding though…

      1. Not trying to be pedantic–it just surprised me as it’s usually used to describe someone’s work before they achieved fame, etc.

        Also sorry to have jumped in with a correction first–this is great work.

      2. I had confused juvenilia with juvenile fiction in my head.

      3. peurilia is uncommon, but defined as “amusements for the young”…

  3. We seem to cover similar topics (I actually found your site while doing research for a piece); please check me out at https://medium.com/@stieg.hedlund

    1. Sure thing! I will.

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