Thursday, July 24, 2008
Jason Grote: Thoughts On Douglas Wolks’ “Reading Comics”
Anyone able to get on the internet and read this should have ample familiarity with fan culture (as it is the internet, increasingly), but here’s a brief primer: around the 1960s and 70s, subcultures surrounding comics, science fiction, and fantasy began to emerge, coinciding with various counterculture publications that began to apply emerging academic fields like cultural studies to the subject of pop music. Fan culture—supported in large part by mimiographed, photocopied, or cheaply-printed ‘zines, and meeting at a few large conventions every year—presupposed the internet with its creation of a large community that transcended physical distance. One of the purposes of fan culture (conscious or not) was to fill a void created by the mainstream media’s dismissal of popular art forms like comics or rock and roll music. This has always been fandom’s greatest strength—its breathless enthusiasm for its subject. At its best, fan writing offers obsessive knowledge, passionate debates, and thoughtful analysis. At its worst, (as can be seen all over the internet), fan culture can be racist, misogynist, and stupid, or Manichean in its thinking (either uncritically loyal to a creator, character, or brand name or consumed by knee-jerk complaining about how everything sucks).
At the opposite pole, there is traditional formal criticism, a discipline which (with a few notable exceptions) seems to primarily be the purview of fine academics, art critics, or dramaturgs. At its best, this field is cross-disciplinary, combining all of the various traditions of art and speaking about its subjects in various larger contexts—aesthetic, historical, sociopolitical. At its worst, formal critical thought is hidebound and ossified, and can be academic to the point of irrelevance—it often comes off as an experience of pounding a square peg into a round hole.
The genius of Reading Comics is that it combines the best of both traditions.
I quite agree with all that.