Book review

A comics studies reader, edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester

Geoffrey Long

Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States

[0.1] Keyword—Comic book

Long, Geoffrey. 2011. A Comics Studies Reader, edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester [book review]. Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 6. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2011.0274.

Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester, eds. A Comics Studies Reader. Oxford, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2009. $25.00 (380p) ISBN 978-1-60473-1-088.

[1] With A Comics Studies Reader, editors Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester (leading comics scholars themselves) aim to paint a portrait of the field targeted at a broad academic audience. As they write in their introduction, "While the present collection is designed for use in courses on comics, it is also aimed at readers who are curious about where comics sit in relation to other kinds of materials that might usefully be assigned in art history, communication arts, design, history, literature, political science, and sociology" (xii).

[2] Heer and Worcester adopt an admirable strategy by splitting the book—and by extension comics studies—into four sections. "While the best of the new comics scholarship is eclectic, in approach and foci, it consistently returns to certain core themes: the history and genealogy of comics, the inner workings of comics, the social significance of comics, and the close scrutiny and evaluation of comics. Not coincidentally, these are the four themes we highlight in this book" (xi). After the introduction and a transcript of a lecture by Thierry Groensteen called "Why Are Comics Still in Search of Cultural Legitimization?," the rest of the book is quartered into "Historical Considerations," "Craft, Art, Form," "Culture, Narrative, Identity," and "Scrutiny and Evaluation." Each section includes six to eight essays from a mix of established and emerging comics scholars.

[3] Most of these essays are brilliant, but I found a few especially compelling. In the historical section of the book, David Kunzle's "Rodolphe Töpffer's Aesthetic Revolution" argues that the early 19th-century Swiss caricaturist influenced the future of comics and cartooning by rejecting traditional classical artistic values and anticipating the modernist notion that art transforms nature and obeys its own rules outside of nature. Peter Coogan's "The Definition of the Superhero" tells the story behind the 1952 legal decision that found Wonder Man copied and infringed upon Superman and, in so doing, defined the primary characteristics of a superhero as mission, powers, and identity. M. Thomas Inge's "Two Boys from the Twin Cities" compares the lives of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz and his neighbor, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and discusses the impact Fitzgerald's work had on Schultz. Under the "Craft, Art, Form" heading, David Carrier's rumination on "Caricature" and its practices and mechanics is particularly compelling, as is Bart Beaty's "Autobiography as Authenticity" under "Culture, Narrative, Identity," which looks at the history of autobiographical comics and why they've proven so instrumental in comics' struggle to gain acceptance as Art. Obviously comics scholars keenly interested in the international aspects of comics, manga, and bande dessinée will be most interested in John Lent's "The Comics Debates Internationally" under "Historical Considerations," Robert Petersen's "The Acoustics of Manga" under "Culture, Narrative, Identity," and Adam Kern's "Manga vs. Kibyóshi" and Fusami Ogi's "Beyond Shoujo, Blending Gender" under "Culture, Narrative, Identity." As someone studying comparative media, I found Annalisa De Liddo's "Transcending Comics: Crossing the Boundaries of the Medium," in the book's fourth section, the most intriguing. De Liddo examines Alan Moore's works blending comics with other media, such as the mixed-media performance pieces The Birth Caul and Snakes and Ladders, which utilize the notion of psychogeography in a fashion particularly applicable to location-based entertainment. Slightly disappointing for the Transformative Works and Cultures audience is the general lack of attention paid to fan activity, but that may merely signal an opportunity for a future volume.

[4] A much bigger issue, unfortunately, is how the book stumbles as a reader. While A Comics Studies Reader is indeed, in Dictionary.com's phrase, "a book of collected or assorted writings, especially when related in theme, authorship, or instructive purpose," the book's own back-cover claim to "introduce readers to the major debates and points of reference that continue to shape the field" is not supported by the editors' selections—or, more specifically, their exclusions. In the introduction, Heer and Worcester state,

[5] Our anthology is intended as a starting point for defining comics studies as well as a springboard for further investigation…It is aimed at students, faculty, curators, librarians, and general readers. Our interest is in addressing readers who are engaged by comics of all kinds and from multiple vantage points, whether as product, construct, language, argument or aesthetic. (xii)

[6] The problem is that this portrait is unbalanced by a distinct lack of, well, comics. In the introduction, Heer and Worcester note that recent comics scholarship has paid special attention to formal aspects of comics, with Will Eisner's Comics and Sequential Art and Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics—both comics—serving as touchstones for this turn. However, both Eisner and McCloud are conspicuously absent from this volume. I'd assume that their absence was due to difficulties securing reprint rights if the book weren't permeated by an unsettling sense of prejudice against those comics practitioners who are also comics theorists. For example, although Understanding Comics is inarguably one of the most influential texts on comics, Heer and Worcester instead opt to include only an essay by R. C. Harvey "pointedly challenging" McCloud's work—and, more telling, while the editors introduce Harvey as both "a gifted historian" and a "theorist," they describe McCloud only as a "cartoonist" (13–14). Including an essay that critiques McCloud while not including anything by McCloud himself feels as if the editors are shooing artists along so the scholarly adults can get on with their work. This imbalance between comic art critics and practitioners is reinforced by the inclusion of an excerpt from Frederic Wertham's infamous 1954 text Seduction of the Innocent: this essay ostensibly functions as a lead-in to Amy Kiste Nyberg's "William Gaines and the Battle over EC Comics," yet its inclusion makes the asymmetric absence of McCloud much more keenly felt. At issue again is the definition of a reader—if one is satisfied with a collection of works that are meant to be merely a sampling of a field, then A Comics Studies Reader does a fine job. If, however, one holds that a reader should be a concise, representative snapshot of the touchstone works in that field, then the exclusion of comics theorists working in comics, such as Eisner, McCloud, and James Kochalka (The Cute Manifesto), is baffling.

[7] More unsettling is the possibility that this exclusion is the result of some deeper academic insecurity. Nestled between the book's introduction and the first of the book's four sections is a piece called "Why Are Comics Still in Search of Cultural Legitimization?," a transcript of a lecture by Thierry Groensteen. It's an excellent question, especially given today's widening acceptance of comics as an art form, but it seems to haunt the editors. One wonders if the editors may have shied away from including excerpts from McCloud's Understanding Comics or Kochalka's The Cute Manifesto for fear that more traditional scholars might scoffingly dismiss the book entirely. Some of the book's essays seem to have been chosen out of such a fear, particularly Inge's comparison of Schultz and Fitzgerald. Add to this the fact that the editors' previous collaboration, the excellent Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium, was a collection of reflections on comics by well-known intellectuals, and a recurring theme emerges of "Comics are valid subjects of study! Comics are valid subjects of study!" This is exceptionally strange, considering that the editors assert that comics studies are coming into their own:

[8] The rise of comics studies is concomitant with the increased status and awareness of comics as an expressive medium and as part of the historical record. This revaluation is testified to by the commercial and critical success of the graphic novel; the greater attention comics are receiving in museums, galleries, and libraries; and the growing interest in teaching comics in the classroom. A cohort of graphic novels, including Maus, Persepolis, Jimmy Corrigan, American Born Chinese, and Fun Home, have become standard items on college and university syllabi for courses on memoir, cultural history, postmodern literature, and area studies. The notion that comics are unworthy of serious investigation has given way to a widening curiosity about comics as artifacts, commodities, codes, devices, mirrors, polemics, puzzles, and pedagogical tools. Comics are no longer a byword for banality; they have captured the interest of growing numbers of scholars working across the humanities and historically oriented social sciences. (xi)

[9] If comics have become so popular and comics studies has become so accepted, then why is this book trying so hard?

[10] The exclusion of comics about comics is exceptionally puzzling since, if Heer and Worcester's intended audience is academics unfamiliar with comics, examples of comics tackling deeper theoretical issues can only be intriguing; if their audience is comics fans interested in theoretical issues, such works could help ease them into the thickets of academic discourse. Instead, the unspoken assertion seems to be that "comics can't do comics studies," which is both shortsighted and wrong, for the same reason that an introductory film studies course would be lacking without Orson Welles's F for Fake. If the goal of comics studies is to encourage deeper exploration of the theories and cultural practices of the medium, then it should absolutely include works done in that medium about that medium that have sparked significant debate—and a reader that intends to deliver a representative sampling of the field as a whole must do so as well. Contrast this collection to Ben Schwartz's 2010 anthology The Best American Comics Criticism (Fantagraphics), which includes a sample of comics on comics from Seth ("High Standards") and is more comprehensive because of it.

[11] In fact, A Comics Studies Reader provides only scant illustrations throughout, perhaps another concession as it clutches for academic respectability: its 380 pages contain only 46 black-and-white images. Compare this to the 131 images (also black and white) in the 360 pages of The Best American Comics Criticism; the 150-odd images in the 346 pages of Randy Duncan and Matthew J. Smith's 2009 The Power of Comics: History, Form and Culture (Continuum); or the image-saturated 240 pages of Roger Sabin's 1996 Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels: A History of Comic Art (Phaidon). Granted, the last of these is more a coffee-table book than an example of rigorous scholarship, but a second edition of A Comics Studies Reader might be significantly improved by more illustrations.

[12] A Comics Studies Reader left me with just such an "in the next edition" wistfulness overall. In its current incarnation, the book would make a fine addition to the syllabus of any comics studies course. As it stands, however, it is not in itself an ideal introduction to comics studies, or sufficient as a primary textbook for such a course. A second edition, revised to include samplings from McCloud, Kochalka, and Eisner, an appendix or richer online companion list of resources telling interested readers where to go next (such as conferences, mailing lists, scholarly publications, suggested texts, university programs; the introduction makes some passing references, but more explicit resources would be useful), and a general easing up on the "comics are valid!" hand-wringing could make such an edition an invaluable text. Here's hoping we get one.



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