There are times when interpretation ought to resist the obvious, to willfully misconstrue, if only so as to break apart a certain readily available conceptual impasse. There is no better example of widespread (and yet unrecognized) impasse than the conceptual stranglehold that the materiality of the so-called [comic] book has on questions of [comics] in general. When I say “[comic] book” I have in mind not just the staple-bound floppies that became prevalent in the mid 1930s but the Franco-Belgian album, the Japanese tankōbon, the annual collections of strips published by the likes of Puck, as well as the ill-defined “graphic novel” with which we have been saddled in recent memory. What this stranglehold means is that while hardly anyone, I imagine, would argue that only book-like objects are to be considered under the rubric of [comics]—for the available evidence to counter this assertion is just too massive to be ignored—the ways in which [comics] are regularly treated shows a persistent flight to the simple logic of text as book, i.e. of a text as unified and unitary object of analysis. As a result, when we look back on the [comics] of yesteryear and try to construct from their limited (and thus limiting) documentary presence a useful if not always accurate history, our penchant for seeing unitary texts causes us regularly to overlook certain salient features of those isolated critical objects, features which might undermine a unitary reading and point instead to a conception of textuality that is far too disruptive to the construction of a simple, straightforward point about an artist, media property, or what have you. One of the key assumptions underlying my own arguments about [comics] in this
book is the importance of their being embedded in disparate media, often alongside other [comic] texts they both do and do not resemble. An example of how this plays out in [comic] stereotypes is Action Comics #1, best known for being the first appearance of (the non-Nietzschean[?]) Superman but also for its iconic cover image of the superhero lifting a crashed car. However, Action Comics, like its companions in early DC history Detective Comics and Adventure Comics, was originally an anthology and the Superman stories were merely one of many lines within it. Over time, Action Comics came to be synonymous with Superman, just as Detective Comics became synonymous with Batman, and that first issue’s value predicated entirely upon its status as a Superman book and not on the appearances of Zatara or Tex Thompson. The fact that early DC [comic] books were anthologies is not unknown, yet in theoretical treatments of what [comics] are or, more narrowly, what superhero texts are, little significance is derived from that fact.
One of the more frustrating phenomena that plays into this sense of textual unitarity is the ever pervasive myth of progress one sees in [comics] criticism. It has several variations, but the gist is generally that sometime in the past [comics] were relatively simple and that over time they became progressively more complex and avant-garde. Often overlaid on top of this is a metaphor of human development in which there is a [comic] infancy, adolescence, and adulthood. Douglas Wolk’s introductory paragraph to Reading Comics is an excellent example of the genre.
It’s no longer news that comics have grown up. A form that was once solely the province of children’s entertainment now fills the bookshelves with mature, brilliant works by artists like Chris Ware, the Hernandez brothers, Dan Clowes, and Charles Burns, discussed in the sort of tone that was once reserved for exciting young prose novelists.
One could hardly believe that “comics” in Wolk’s brief history could include romance [comics] or political cartoons or sports [comics] or a whole host of texts that fall under the rubric of [comic] and yet were coeval with the Donald Duck comics that were king when [comic] book sales were at their apex. Even more academically oriented works have a tendency to succumb to the progress myth. Gardner’s Projections, for example, begins reasonably enough with [comic] strips in the late 19th century, but after he turns to the advent of the comic book, it is almost as if, for his argument, [comic] strips cease to exist. Now, I am not trying to assert that Gardner is unaware of the ongoing (and continuing) history of short form [comics] in newspapers and magazines, rather that a certain approach to thinking about [comics] almost demands that formats, titles, artists, or what have you be treated in relative isolation, even when that isolation, according to another arbitrary sense of completeness or correctness, seems somehow wrong.
What the progress myth obscures in [comics] history is the sheer variety one might find in the [comic] texts of the latter half of the 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th. We are accustomed to thinking of this time period as the domain of simple strips or single panel cartoons, but even the most cursory archival research will reveal a vast array of layouts and appropriations of other, “distinct” visual codes, often for the purposes of parody but also, as I hope to demonstrate, simply to integrate those visual codes into an ever expanding sense of what [comics] are and, more importantly, can be. [Comics] can play effectively off the seemingly distinct narrative and visual codes of other texts, because the [comics] in periodicals were always in close proximity to those texts, so a [comic] could easily invite its reader to apply the same interpretive mode to it that she might to advertisements, the fashion spreads in the ladies’ section, sports standings, stock charts, games, etc. Because I disparaged Projections above, I should mention that Gardner is one of a surprisingly few critics who have attempted to tackle this relation between [comic] texts and the media they are embedded in.
[Bud Fisher’s] A. Mutt ran in the sports pages of the [San Francisco] Chronicle, right alongside box scores, headlines, and, most relevantly, the official odds on the upcoming races at the track. The horses Mutt was betting on from day one were real horses running in actual races of that day. When Fisher invited his readers to come back tomorrow to see how it turned out, he was encouraging them to participate in the fictional ups-and-downs of his cartoon gambler, based on actual races whose results they could read about in the news the next day. (Projections 42)A. Mutt began running daily in 1907, many decades before [comics] came to be regarded for the most part, whether fairly or not, as juvenilia. Far greater attention needs to be paid to this complex interaction between texts, and in the following chapter I will closely examine Kitazawa Rakuten’s work in Tokyo Puck so as to do just that. However, for now, suffice it to say that this early variety and breadth of [comic] types gives the lie to the all-too-common sense that [comics] have moved from relative simplicity to relative maturity. In fact, just the opposite seems to be the case: a far narrower range of visual codes have become [comic] conventions, and those recent texts that have been considered formally progressive and innovative only because a long period of formally typical texts—alongside a comics discourse devoted to accurately describing the type—has invisibilized an older, looser sense of what [comics] might be.
If the problem with treatments of [comics] that seek to answer the what question is their susceptibility to their definitions being challenged almost the moment they come into existence, my own how oriented approach is no less perplexed, though by a very different problem. If I were trying to pick apart my own argument, I would interject that while my model of [comics] appropriation does account for the rather peculiar texts I intend to treat here, it does not, however, seem to deal well with the very texts that are most common and do little if anything to push the boundaries of what might be considered a [comic] text. While it is quite easy to see how Gardner’s example from A. Mutt above appropriates the daily routine of checking the racing results or how Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen takes its cue from McCay’s Little Nemo, there is a far longer list of comic texts that seem to appropriate nothing at all. They hew close to good ole fashioned combinations of words and images, panels and speech balloons, sound effects and speed lines. Garfield does not poach much beyond unattended plates of lasagna.
Yet, there is a way in which even the most conventional, mundane, path-re-paving [comic] is always amenable to this sort of appropriation even when it otherwise seems to conform strictly to even the most “uneducated” stereotypes. For your old fashioned cartoonish [comic] character can be anything at any given moment; logic is generally the first thing thrown out the window. A cat can run for president, cave men can discuss the negative effects of solar radiation, the heir to a crime syndicate can be a high school homeroom teacher, a duck can be a pirate, Vikings can complain about their wives and other concerns of mid-century salarymen, a little girl can be a psychotherapist, an adolescent boy can be bitten by a radioactive spider and gain the ability to climb walls, a pre-teen can be the best choice to pilot a massive and expensive piece of military hardware, and so on. Even so-called autobiographical [comics] present to their readers a polymorphic self. Harvey Pekar always seems to be drawn in a manner far more grotesque than the rather ordinary-looking man himself.
When you look at a comic book, you’re not seeing the world or a direct representation of the world; what you’re seeing is an interpretation or transformation of the world, with aspects that are deliberately exaggerated, adapted, or invented. It’s not just unreal, it’s deliberately constructed by a specific person or people. But because comics are a narrative and visual form, when you’re reading them, you do believe that they’re real on some level. (Wolk, Reading Comics 20)
The extent to which all [comics] are surreal or, to be more precise, alter-real is a function of how they fail to play the game of Platonic hand-wringing over mimesis/representation and instead present again features of “really real reality” all jumbled up so as to confront conventional wisdom with the uncanny and thereby solicit new modes of thinking about “the real.”