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Thursday, February 14, 2008

Comics and Canonicity

Posted by John Holbo on 02/14/08 at 03:23 AM


The best work of literary criticism I’ve read this year is Douglas Wolk’s Reading Comics [amazon]. (Obviously I’m biased in favor of the subject matter. But it’s just plain good literary criticism.)

This post is an updated version of something I posted in a private forum, where it garnered lively responses – from Douglas himself, among others. (By the by, who’s up for a Reading Comics book event? Douglas had told me he would appreciate the treatment. The paperback version of his book is coming out in June. Maybe we could do it then. Who’s interested?)

Right. Let me start negatively, picking a nit pertaining to the dust jacket.


Suddenly, comics are everywhere: a newly matured art-form ..."

OK, stop right there.

The first line of chapter 1: “It’s no longer news that comics have grown up.”

Obviously the dust jacketeer did not bother to read as far the first line of the book itself. Also, it is rather unfortunate that this blurb matter is not merely empirically falsified by the first line of the book but in tension with the previous sentence of the blurb itself. If comics only matured last week, it is hardly likely that, this week, the form has already calcified from tender green sprout into the sort of petrified wood that cries out for ‘canon-smashing’.

I’ve talked about the first of these two confusions before. Journalistic discussions of comics tend to have a ‘gosh, perfesser, you mean we have to take these funny books seriously’ tone. Which is phony and inappropriate. Journalists have been writing the same damn piece, over and over, since at least the mid-80’s. Well, enough about that. In this post, I want to focus on the canon question, which I haven’t discussed before.

When I originally posted these thoughts, I speculated thusly: “the blurb-writer knows that canons are straitjackets cinched tight by cultural conservatives, or Allan Bloom, or E.D. Hirsch, or freakish hyper-appreciative Easter Island monoliths like the aging Harold Bloom.”

Here’s is the Wolk himself, in response, more or less confirming I was on the right track.

“The “canon-smashing” thing happened fairly early in the book’s history (when I was about halfway through writing it); my publicist sent me some bit of promotional copy that included, I think, “canon-defining,” and I shuddered and said “can we make it ‘canon-smashing’ instead?” They liked that so much they kept using it.”

He went on to explain that he was, personally, fascinated by questions about the dynamics of canon-formation. But he wanted to dodge any ‘defining’ bullets. I sympathize with that impulse, but ‘smashing’ is excessive recoil in the opposite direction. Reading Reading comics, one of the things I find most satisfactory is just how ‘canonic’ (there is no more suitable word) is Wolk’s sense of his subject. He thinks it all makes a certain sense, and is able to write forcefully in the confidence that the book can expect to find an audience that shares this sense of a sense.

He isn’t ‘defining’. That would, indeed, be the wrong word. But he isn’t ‘smashing’, by any means. As a critic he is helping himself to the happy fact that a canon has … happened.

This is not to say that his discussion is comprehensive. Indeed, it has some pretty eccentric focus points. (Exception that proves the rule: only against a stable, canonic backdrop can one be effectively eccentric.) Even so, I hope you can sort of guess what I’m getting at when I say it is ‘canonic’. If not, let me pseudo-quantify. Behind me stands approx. 12 feet of shelf space, filled with comics. A lot, by most people’s standards. But not by the standards of a collector. I’m hardly a freak of fanboy erudition.

And yet, when, on p. 9, Wolk produces a stack of ‘ten books and comics’ that came out in about a month, in 2006, which he says are first rate, I happen to own five of them, which I agree are great (and I have at least heard of three more of the titles he lists).

1. Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness (Bryan Lee O’Malley)
2. Fun Home (Alison Bechdel)
3. All-Star Superman #1 (Morrison/Quitely)
4. Curses, Kevin Huizinga
5. Kramers Ergot 6 (anthology)
6. Daredevil #86 (Brubaker/Lark)
7. I Love Led Zeppelin (Ellen Forney)
8. Babel #2 (David B.)
9. Tales of Woodsman Pete (Lilli Carré)
10. The Squirrel Mother (Megan Kelso)

(And no, I don’t just own the superhero ones.)

In general, when Wolk names artists and comics, I’ve heard of them. And I’ve actually read half of them. The center of comics culture holds, to a considerable degree.

Another argument via list: look at the list of winners of the Eisners, since 1988. Think about how many of those titles you recognize and have read (if you care about comics). Think how, if you wanted to educate someone up from zero about contemporary comics culture, you could just tell them to acquire and read all the award winners. It wouldn’t be a half-bad syllabus. By contrast, you wouldn’t just tell anyone to watch all the Academy Award Winners, or Emmy Winners, or listen to (god-forbid) the Grammy Winners. You wouldn’t say ‘you can get a sense of what matters in this art form by looking just at the award winners’.

Let me speculate on, with yet more pseudo-empirical gratuity. Suppose you rounded up 20 poets, 20 playwrights, 20 film directors, 20 TV writers, 20 novelists, 20 rock musicians, 20 jazz musicians, 20 comics artists, 20 painters; suppose you asked each to list three things:

1) the 20 greatest artists in their field.
2) their favorite 20 artists in their field.
3) the 20 figures who mean most to their work/inform their craft/have influenced them most

I think there would be a lot of diffusion of response from most of these (um) native informant groups. Data points all over the grid. No two rock musicians have the same list of greats, let alone even approximately the same list of personal faves and influences. But, in the comics case, I’ll bet there would be, relatively, more overlap not just in the answers people would give to individual answers, but overlap across answer sets. The ones you think are great are also your favorites and also your influences. (I suspect there would be a lot of overlap in the jazz case, too, for example. But maybe I just don’t know enough about jazz.)

You might say this is due to factors like: the relative smallness of the set of serious candidates for the status of ‘good comics’. By contrast, there’s just too many damn rock bands—too many damn fine bands. But it’s not as though there haven’t been a lot of American comics printed in the past century, calculated by dead weight of pulp. Thousands of writers and artists have worked in the field. Yet we—who care—have all heard of the same 20-50 Great Comics Artists. Imagine if everyone in fact more or less agreed on the 20 Greatest Rock Bands. And everyone mostly listened to those, and tended to measure others by the standard set by the top-20.

But suppose it is, indeed, the case that the field of comics is just plain smaller than the field of rock music (maybe so). Suppose you tried to cut the latter down to size, for fair comparison purposes. Suppose you asked for everyone’s (let’s say) favorite ‘punk rock’ albums. Well, of course you would just succeed in starting a pissy and pointless argument about what’s ‘punk’. But suppose you managed to hammer all that out and got your answers. You might get some convergence on what is truly ‘classic’ punk, but in another sense I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t. ‘Punk rockers’ (again, let’s just assume, against all odds, that everyone is still on speaking terms after having argued about what this means) would tend to have significant musical influences who weren’t ‘punk’. The answers to question 3 would spiral us far out of punk rock. The roots of punk are not punk. Whereas, I suspect, the roots of comics are, to a high degree, comics. Comics artists are, to an unusual degree, influenced by other comics artists. There is a sort of artistic endogeny to the comics medium. (I don’t mean that comics folks tend to know less about, or be unappreciative of, other art forms. Just that the craft of comics artistry in fact seems to have had a certain inward-lookingness, for its tools and styles and craft values.) At the same time that it isn’t looking outside itself, to other arts, for guidance, comics sensibility is looking deep into itself, is strongly historicist. To quote Eliot from “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: “... the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a fanboy beyond his twenty-fifth year ...”

You may say I’m just wrong about all this. Maybe so. I’m just having fun, making big claims. When I originally posted, I got quite a bit of push-back. I admit I’m guilty of stretching, to make my point. Wolk himself pointed out that the Comics Journal list of the Top #100 comics and the Wizard #100 list had strikingly little overlap.

There are, indeed, some pretty major divisions, especially along the art comics/capes and tights axis. You tell me what you think. Meanwhile, I forge ahead.

Having a canon may correspond to a certain sort of health—at least it affords certain real satisfactions. But lacking a canon certainly does not correspond to ill-health. Many healthy, living art forms appear to me to be complete sprawling messes, canon-wise. Having a canon means, in effect, that the list of truly great artists/works is small enough that some fanatics have literally studied them all. And a critical mass of enthusiasts and artists have seriously appreciated at least, say, half of them, so they can sit at the feet of the fanatics and understand what the hell they are saying. Once you get so many truly first-rate works that no one short of a freak, Harold Bloom type can have possibly compassed them all, you can’t really have a psychically functioning canon. A canon has to be approximately portable in a human head. This implies major cost-benefit trade-offs. There is obviously something nice about having too damn much great stuff to fit in any one head. But there is also something nice about a field that is alive and well, yet compact and self-contained enough to know what it thinks is great in the past and the present, which can—in not utterly falsifying fashion—be synoptically surveyed by the appreciative critic. There is something nice about reading a book, like Wolks’, and really feeling like I understand it, where it is coming from, even while I am learning a great deal from it, because I have already been independently induced to consume a critical mass of what it is about.

An illustration of this point: one reason why Wolk can get a more or less comprehensive handle on his subject is that he confines himself to the American context. He explicitly leaves the rich Asian and European comics traditions out of consideration. This works ok—does not entail flagrant falsification—because these traditions are, in fact, relatively independent of the US tradition; but, in another 20 years, this probably won’t be the case any longer. The Asian influence is so strong that in another generation the American tradition won’t be understandable without consideration of manga manga everywhere. Likewise, as Wolk notes, comics are being increasingly infused with ‘fine arts’ influences (Chris Ware, others.) Likewise, there are a lot more women around the place than there used to be (Satrapi, Bechdel). The bigger it gets, the harder it gets to wrap your head around it. Right now it still feels (to me) ‘canonical’ on a humanly comprehensible scale. That just means: when you have studied ‘the Greats’—and you can—you not only get to appreciate the greatness. You also get, by extension, a picture of how the whole field fits together. But—due to all the fantastic things that are happening—that may not last. Oh, well. There are worse fates than having so many good things to read that you can’t read them all, or impose plausible critical order on the whole scene.

And do you think the following is true? It’s easier to have a live canon of poetry than a live canon of novels because it’s easier to read, and sort of remember, 500 ‘classic poems’ than it is to read 500 ‘classic novels’. Novels are bigger and take longer to read. So fewer people can chew through the whole stack. Comics are more like poems than novels. You can read a lot of the things, collect them in your head. So it is easier to have a functional canon of ‘comics art’ than it is to have a functional canon of novels. (This seems like a dumb thing to say, but somehow it feels vaguely true. It does not follow, of course, that comics—any more than poems—are easy and quick to write. It took Chris Ware years to write Jimmy Corrigan. But you can read it in just a couple hours.)

And a final note about canons. When we were doing all our Theory fighting around this place it was always annoying to me when people equated the Theory wars with the Canon wars. I understand why that happens. But I find Theory to be a fascinating, albeit amorphous occasion for starting real arguments (even if the other side is reluctant to come to the table); by contrast Canon Wars are dull pissing matches all around. Your mileage may vary.

The reason Canon Wars are a waste of time is that canons happen (or fail to). You can’t coherently aim at bringing one into existence, let alone force one to. All you can do is create things, and judge things, which is piecemeal work. A canon is a wholesale side-effect. Or else it isn’t.

Wolk himself more or less made this point in our exchange but I’ll develop it in my own way. Canon Wars start when someone, due to a frustrated inability to compel everyone around him to admit that Shakespeare is Great, conjures a rhetorically pushy vision of a world in which it would be reasonable to expect everyone to have read Shakespeare. But how could you possibly show that it would be good to work towards this world without having first just plain demonstrated that Shakespeare is Great. Canon Wars are a way of pretending to do something impossible, by way of pretending to have done something else that was also impossible. But doing two impossible things before breakfast isn’t any easer than doing just one.

Honestly, Canon Warriors are as bad as Richard Rorty: pure rhetoric of anticipatory retrospective. Argument by incessant presupposition.

I’ve now manage to write a very long post about Wolks’ book without really discussing it. (Also, I’m sure everything I’ve said is speculative nonsense. Oh, well. Maybe it’s interesting nonsense.) I do hope we can pull together an event for Wolk in which I can rectify my failure to actually say much about what he actually says. I’ll just conclude by quoting a bit that isn’t really representative of the tone of the thing—as soon as he finishes this bit, he tickles himself in the ribs for having the pretension to say it. But I think it’s good:

The way I experience and think about comics has a lot to do with the fact that I really enjoy them. I like figuring out how that pleasure works and describing it to other people so that they can enjoy them too, or at least enjoy them more fully than they would otherwise. And what I like (and want to pass along) about a particular comic can be the pleasure of pure spectacle, or of ingenious design, or of kinetic flow, or of characters’ psychological depth, or of a story that’s funny or engaging, or any number of other things.

I also think it’s my responsibility as a critic to be harsh and demanding and to subject unambitious or botched work to public scorn, because I want more good comics: more cartoonists who challenge themselves to do better, and more readers who insist on the same. Here’s a bit from one of my favorite critical manifestos, Rebecca West’s 1914 essay, “The Duty of Harsh Criticism”: “Just as it is the duty of the students of Kelvin the mathematician to correct his errors in arithmetic, so it is the duty of critics to rebuke these hastinesses of great writer, lest the blurred impressions weaken the surrounding mental fabric and their rough transmissions frustrated the mission of genius on earth.” (p. 21-2)


I’d nominate Marc Bousquet’s How the University Works for book event treatment, too.  But this one sounds like a fantastic idea!

By The Constructivist on 02/14/08 at 05:39 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Ah, yes, once more into the breech ...

By nnyhav on 02/14/08 at 09:53 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I liked the Sebald book event idea better.

By Rohan Maitzen on 02/14/08 at 09:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Yes, the Valve should do a book event on this topic! It would be fun, and one more piece of evidence that comics have “grown up,” so we can all stop saying so.

I’m convinced by your argument that there is a comics canon. I “seriously appreciate” the first 20 titles on the Comics Journal Top 100 list, anyway; in fact, I own all but two of them. And I’m just a fan, not a fanatic or even a fanboy. I also buy the argument that canons just happen, from the ground up, and that top-down canon wars are a waste of time—though I’m sure they’re good for conservative publishing houses.

By Joshua Glenn on 02/14/08 at 11:08 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I know that the dust jacket is not the writer’s fault.  But dustjacketeer, really—the first serious [...] book of comics theory and criticism by the leading critic in the field?  For all the people who will jump to say how naive and overrated it is, that has to be Understanding Comics, which made McCloud the leading critic in the field whether he deserved to be or not.

And I have to dispute your idea of canonicity within comics, John.  The reason you’ve heard of so many of the titles from 2006 is because they’re from 2006, and you’ve been studying comics recently.  The reason that people have heard of past award-winners is because for most of its U.S. history, comics were pulp, and very few of them deserved to be remembered. 

But comics have now grown to the point where its unlikely that actual, typical readers of comics have anything like a canon in their head.  Take some large groupings of readership in the contemporary or recent-past U.S. —let’s say, comtemporary mainstream superhero comics, golden/silver age superhero comics, Vertigoesque comics, “independent” comics, art comics, and 60s-style underground.  Do people really have wide experience of these?  No, generally not.  They’ve heard names, sure.  But the same thing happens in literature; you hear the name of a famous writer, and you say yes, their work is recognized as having literary merit, even though you’ve never read them and never will.  In that sense, a comics canon exists in the same way that a literary novelist one does.

I remember when you mentioned that you hadn’t read the Grant Morrison Doom Patrol.  For someone who read a lot of Vertigo, that’s like—well, I suppose that it’s not like not having read Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, and Gaiman’s Sandman would be when Vertigo went mainstream, but it’s still a data point that shows that even a widely read reader such as yourself can still have only a cursory exposure to comic subgenres other than your preferred one(s).

By on 02/14/08 at 11:25 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Regarding John’s nit: I don’t think there’s a contradiction between something being “newly matured” and “no longer news.” It’s like saying, “Obama has recently surfaced as a viable candidate” and “It’s no longer news that Obama is a viable candidate.” This just speaks to the speed of our world: “recently” isn’t news anymore. 

On the topic of canons: I think a stable canon speaks to a stable community.  When there were small, intense punk enclaves, there would have been agreement on a punk canon.  A comparable case would be the Language poets, who largely agree on the their important predecessors in part because they were a fairly stable community, in contemporary terms. 

Of course, this might be a chicken and egg issue.  Which comes first, the canon or the community?  They form together, right?  When the world of university study was small and exclusive, university canons were stable; as the community exploded, the canons exploded. 

Even in more dispersed communities—the world of indie-rock hipsters—there’s not really that much diversity.  Check out a lot of the “Year’s End Best Of” lists and you’ll see a great deal of overlap. 

But John’s also right that size matters.  Ron Silliman has blogged a few times about the geometrical increase in poetry publication in the past few decades.  Few readers can even pretend to have a grasp on it, let along confidently make canon lists. 

Lucky for me, whatever I’m currently reading also seems like either the worst or best book I’ve ever read.

By on 02/14/08 at 06:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"I remember when you mentioned that you hadn’t read the Grant Morrison Doom Patrol.”

Well, in my defense, I would have said it with a sense that it was a bit surprising. I didn’t really get into the whole Grant Morrison thing before “Seven Soldiers” converted me. But that made me sort of odd man out, among those who generally share my tastes.

By John Holbo on 02/15/08 at 03:17 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I dunno. It’s true that “comics generally available in North American-style comics shops” are a small enough set to make a graspable canon, but you’ve set some pretty artificial seawalls in place there that are still easily swamped: whole rich subcultures can appear out of “nowhere” all of a “sudden,” like the Flight kids, and nobody knows quite what to do with them. (What to make of webcomics? Most critics are throwing up their hands crying that there’s TOO MUCH TOO FAST to ever make sense of it all, and so it goes unremarked.)

So it’s possible, yes, to stand with critics of a certain type and claim we have a canon, but it’s already a disastrously exclusive step. I think.

By Kip Manley on 02/15/08 at 11:52 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I know that the dust jacket is not the writer’s fault.  But dustjacketeer, really

For the majority of academic monographs—though of course it may not be true in this case—the text on the dust jacket is pretty much the writer’s fault. This is because the author usually writes the jacket summary. If the production people tweak it a bit, the author usually still sees it beforehand. Knowing this makes reading the back covers of academic books a slightly odd experience, as you know that most of the time the praise ("stunning ... erudite ... incisive ... pathbreaking ...") is self-penned.

By Kieran on 02/15/08 at 01:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

>Even in more dispersed communities—the world of indie-rock hipsters—there’s not really that much diversity.  Check out a lot of the “Year’s End Best Of” lists and you’ll see a great deal of overlap.

This is not really true when you compare individual critics’ top picks:


It is more true when you compare the overall lists from different publications or websites since most of those are constructed by combining individual critics’ lists into a combined list.  This tends to filter out the idiosyncratic picks.

By on 02/15/08 at 09:28 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Here is Douglas Wolk’s Pazz and jop ballot:


It has 4 (of 10) album selections that no one else (out of hundreds of critics) picked and 1 selection that only one other critic picked. 

I really do think there is more of a cannon for comics.  In any event, “Reading Comics” is a very good book.

By on 02/15/08 at 09:57 PM | Permanent link to this comment

To compare “comics” and “punk music” seems like a category mistake.  No, the roots of punk are not punk; but the roots of [pick your favorite comic subgenre] are not in that subgenre, but in some preceding one.  (That almost follows from what the term “roots” means.) And certainly the roots of the punk subgenre of the rock music tradition are in other subgenres of the rock music tradition.

Certainly the “rock music tradition” is larger and more varied than the “comics” tradition, but I just don’t see the evidence for the notion that “Comics artists are, to an unusual degree, influenced by other comics artists.” Rock musicians are overwhelmingly (obviously not exclusively) influenced by other rock musicians, too.

By on 02/16/08 at 09:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

"To compare “comics” and “punk music” seems like a category mistake.”

It’s actually worse than you suggest. Comics isn’t just a genre, compared to the subgenere of punk. Comics is a distinctive medium - within which there can be as many genres as you like - compared to punk. But that was supposed to be part of the point, which, apparently, you don’t buy. Which is probably very sensible of you.

By John Holbo on 02/16/08 at 10:13 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I think Wolk’s book has gotten a mixed or unfavorable reception. For example:

By David Weman on 02/20/08 at 02:07 AM | Permanent link to this comment

In parts of Europe and Asia, people who are seen as “cultural conservatives” we also see as “well-read,” and what is seen as freed from a “straitjacket” we sometimes see as commercial and ordinary. The fact is that almost anyone can read and appreciate comic books, but it takes much more effort to appreciate Shakespeare.

I’m sorry if you find such views “[p]hony and inappropriate,” but I read comic books when I was a kid and I still see kids and adults reading them today without the need of books or teachers to explain to them why comics should be read. Unless professors have to look for something to research about or are researching to help the comics industry, or unless professors ask students to read comic books that are outside what they enjoy (like “Maus” or Philippine “komiks"), then I don’t see the point in taking comic books seriously. I’d rather read more challenging works, and preferably with more words than pictures.

Is there an argument outside a “rhetoric of incessant presupposition”? Perhaps people are attracted to comic books for neurological reasons, i.e., the human brain is attracted to bright pictures or sounds, like those found in comic books, Hollywood movies, television shows, and pop music, and it helps when marketing is used to make such products more attractive, but I don’t see why there should be a difference then between “canon warriors” and “[non]-canon warriors.”

About the issue that one should not force others to read canonical works, that is also a rhetoric of incessant presupposition. How would one know if a work is “great” or not withour reading it? And if you spend more time reading comic books, how will you find the time to read more difficult works like Shakespeare’s plays or even his sonnets?

By on 02/25/08 at 10:49 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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