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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
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Past Valve Book Events

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Academic Respectability Comics

Posted by Bill Benzon on 04/20/09 at 03:33 PM

I just wanted to make a few remarks on the academic respectability of commentary on comics, for several things are at issue but are not clearly distinguished in the current discussion (I’m thinking of SEK’s comments on Caravaggio, Blake, and Wolk, and Holbo’s reply on Wolk). Let’s start with the distinction between the objects of study and the mode of study:

Are the objects of study appropriate to academic discourse?

Are the discourse conventions those of the academic world?

Both of these questions, of course, have been important in the professionalization of literary study. On the first question, high art canonical texts have traditionally been deemed appropriate, but not others. Jane Austen, yes; Ernest Hemingway, yes; T. S. Eliot, yes; Rider Haggard, no; Agatha Cristie, no; and so forth. By this standard comics don’t cut it and, in any event, they aren’t purely literary. On the second question, academic literary studies has been at pains to distinguish itself from belles-lettres and journalistic reviews.

There is, however, at least one qualification. For example, Bradford Wright has published Comic Book Nation: The Transformation of Youth Culture in America (JHU Press 2003). It’s a cultural history about the comic book industry in American during the last three quarters of the 20th century. That’s fine because Wright doesn’t argue that any of those comic titles should be granted canonical status alongside Homer, Seneca, Pope, Borges and the rest. One can study popular culture in certain ways without either explicitly or implicitly arguing for canonical high art status.

But those “certain ways” don’t seem to be what Scott has in mind. He’s clearly arguing for a close reading of comics. In so doing is he arguing, if only implicitly, that at least some comics be granted canonical high art status? The question arises because the techniques of close reading arose in the study of the canon and have been employed most intensely there, less so for pop culture. Presumably, Scott has some thoughts on this.

And, if canon-inclusion is in the game, what books make the cut? This is a messy question as a given title can be written and drawn by various people at various times, some having considerably more skill and imagination than others. That’s one set of issues. And then there’s kidstuff: What about titles clearly targeted at pre-adolescent children? It’s one thing to make a case for the best Batman books, which are intended for and do have an older audience, but what about Carl Barks, the creator of Uncle Scrooge? Is it intellectually respectable to do close readings of texts intended for children?

For myself, intellectual satisfaction is what I’m after, and that’s only incidentally related to whether or not a given text belongs in some high art canon. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. And so I pose one last question: In this case, is academic respectability the enemy of valid intellectual inquery? That’s hardly a new issue.


Comments

There’s no doubt that most comics are created as mass entertainment rather than high art. Yet we have plenty of examples of other storytelling forms in which some mass entertainments (Macbeth, Oliver Twist, His Gal Friday) stick their heads out from the crowd and reward close reading decades later.

The question may be not whether there will be a canon of 20th-century American or international comics, but whether we’ll live long enough to see it codified.

By J. L. Bell on 04/21/09 at 10:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment


It’s one thing to make a case for the best Batman books, which are intended for and do have an older audience, but what about Carl Barks, the creator of Uncle Scrooge? Is it intellectually respectable to do close readings of texts intended for children?

I’m sorry, but which of those two actually had a Marxist --bestselling-- literature study devoted to them again?

By Martin Wisse on 04/22/09 at 08:38 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, does no one read Ariel Dorfman any more?

That’s fine because Wright doesn’t argue that any of those comic titles should be granted canonical status alongside Homer, Seneca, Pope, Borges and the rest. One can study popular culture in certain ways without either explicitly or implicitly arguing for canonical high art status.

You might want to watch your tone here.  You’re coming off a bit, “You cultural historians can do your little thing, but don’t go making any claims about quality.  That’s our racket.” “That’s a nice interpretive framework you got there.  Be a real shame if something were to ... happen to it.”

By on 04/22/09 at 11:01 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Did no one read my final paragraph?

By Bill Benzon on 04/22/09 at 11:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I for one would love to see a Marxist analysis of the early Batman stories. Bruce Wayne spent an awful lot of time protecting fellow millionaires and their charity events from jewel thieves, kidnappers, and extortionists.

By J. L. Bell on 04/22/09 at 12:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Maybe Batman was an agent of the Secret Empire of Scrooge McDuck.

By Bill Benzon on 04/22/09 at 01:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I for one did miss the first sentence or that last paragraph the first time through.  Now, having read it, I’m even more puzzled as to why you structured the piece that way.  I’m guessing that you were taking SEK’s criticism of Wolk as saying “Comics are serious business and ought to be treated with respect.” I read him as playing it the other way, “Academic criticism (of anything) is serious business and ought to be rigorous rather than just chatty.” I for one would happily embrace rigorous chattiness, but that’s kind of beside the high art/not high art point.

Dorfman did write about Superman (Superman y sus amigos del alma. Buenos Aires : Editorial Galerna, 1974.) and I remember reading a chapter of that in translation (can’t find the cite) where he analyses a story in which Batman is planning a surprize birthday party for Superman at his Fortress of Solitude.  Repressed homoeroticism abounds.

By on 04/22/09 at 01:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m guessing that you were taking SEK’s criticism of Wolk as saying “Comics are serious business and ought to be treated with respect.” I read him as playing it the other way, “Academic criticism (of anything) is serious business and ought to be rigorous rather than just chatty.”

The latter is closer to my meaning: “Wolk’s book is fine, but it won’t do as academic criticism. It’s something else.”

By Bill Benzon on 04/22/09 at 01:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Sure, but that’s a question of tone and/or use of evidence rather than high and low.

By on 04/22/09 at 03:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Of course. And making that difference is at the center of this post; hence those two questions after the first paragraph. The object of inquiry (high/middle/low) is one thing. How you write about it, regardless of what it is, is different.

By Bill Benzon on 04/22/09 at 03:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hello. I’m confused by the post by Scott Eric Kaufman.

It sounds as if he thinks there are barely any academics writing about comics, which isn’t true. Dut surely he does know that?
Wolk isn’t an academic.

By David Weman on 04/22/09 at 03:55 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Comics has a very clearly defined canon, for good or ill.

By David Weman on 04/22/09 at 03:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Here are some links. I have no opinion of the general quality of comics scholarship.

http://www.internationalcomicartsforum.org/
http://www.ijoca.com/
http://eurocomicart.lupjournals.org/

By David Weman on 04/22/09 at 04:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"That’s fine because Wright doesn’t argue that any of those comic titles should be granted canonical status alongside Homer, Seneca, Pope, Borges and the rest. One can study popular culture in certain ways without either explicitly or implicitly arguing for canonical high art status.”

I think comics is a pretty swell art form.

Whatever the quality of the greatest cartoonists, they should not be put alongside Homer or Borges, since they work in a wholly different art form. Comics isn’t a subgenre of literature, comics is comics.

By David Weman on 04/22/09 at 04:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Comics isn’t a subgenre of literature, comics is comics.

As much as I love that last sentence, David, I consider both a subgenre of narrative in a way that, say, poetry isn’t necessarily. 

That said, I’m aware of and familiar with academic criticism on comics, I’m just not altogether satisfied with the state of it (hence, much of the prose I’ve generated of late).

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/23/09 at 11:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I consider both a subgenre of narrative in a way that, say, poetry isn’t necessarily.”

Good lord!  No.  Comics is a medium, like prose is a medium.  Do you consider prose a “subgenre of narrative”?  (Whatever that might mean:  I wasn’t aware narrative qualifies as a genre...) Prose can be used for many more things than recounting narratives, and so can comics.  For one, there are the poetry-like (for lack of a better term) comics of Gary Sullivan (who is also a founder of flarf), or of Warren Craghead.  Many other recent comics (such as pieces by Kevin Huizenga, Anders Nilsen, John Hankiewicz, Dave Kiersh, etc. etc.) also fall under the same category. 

And then there’s this (if I may mention a site I started):
http://abstractcomics.blogspot.com

BTW, hi David!

By Andrei on 04/24/09 at 02:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

& not to mention Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which has narratives in it but is not, on the whole, a narrative. It’s rather explanatory and theoretical.

By Bill Benzon on 04/24/09 at 06:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yeah, I agree with Andrei and Bill.  Comics can be narrative or not.  So, for that matter, can poetry, or paintings.  Whether or not narrative is a “genre,” it’s one that overlaps with several media, and comics can or cannot be one of them.

By tomemos on 04/24/09 at 12:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think you guys are using a constrictive definition of “narrative” here: I was trying to be expansive in the “aesthetic encounter experienced and understood as time moves forward.” I’m not (as per my recent post) tied to the notion that narrative has to be conventional.

Put differently: comics and prose can both be called “literary” in a way that, say, film can’t be.  (The term becomes pejorative when applied to film.) “Literariness” is something comics can possess, in part because of its reliance on the written word.  I’m generalizing, of course, but it’s no coincidence that comics without words are often called “poetic.” It’s the clumsy application of inapplicable vocabulary, and what I’m trying to differentiate between what an aesthetic object is and what the critical stance toward it should be.

By Scott Eric Kaufman on 04/24/09 at 12:26 PM | Permanent link to this comment

But as Bill pointed out, comics can follow other, non-temporal structures, chiefly instruction/education.  A “novel” that was used for that purpose, without even a nominal story or concept of time moving forward, would be very much defying the standard definitions of what a novel is, whereas a comic that did the same—Understanding Comics, Poststructuralism for Beginners, McCloud’s manual for Chrome—would not.  Okay, I guess that those comics could still be considered “temporal” in that one panel follows another panel, but this seems to be defining narrative down to near-meaninglessness.

We’re probably not in disagreement, particularly since the great majority of comics are narrative, but I do think there’s an important difference between medium and genre.  Maybe Prose:Novels::Comics:Narrative comics.

By tomemos on 04/24/09 at 01:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Scott, I disagree with the implication that comics is closer to literature than film is, if that’s what you’re suggesting, perhaps you’re not.

In some ways it is closer, in some ways it’s closer to film.

(Hi, Andrei.)

By David Weman on 04/24/09 at 02:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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