Manuel Betancourt

Post Bang Conference or How ‘Comics and Canon Formation’ was up first

June 10, 2008 · in Comic Books

Post Bang: Comics Ten Minutes After the Big Bang!
Friday, June 6 2008
An all-day symposium on the growing cultural significance of comics curated by Art Spiegelman and Kent Worcester

Blogging about an academic symposium – it seems like an attack on everything I get taught in grad school, but I do feel that the more interesting part of a panel like this is the interactions and the personal reactions from the audience (consider it [retroactive] liveblogging in an academic setting).

11:00-12:15pm Comics and Canon Formation
Rob Storr (moderator, was curator of MOMA, including its High and Low exhibition), John Carlin (Masters of American Comics) and Dan Nadel (Art Out of Time: Unknown Visionary Cartoonists, 1900-1969, also check out his PictureBox)

Kicking off the Post-Bang Symposium and its first panel, Rob Storr started us off with a few introductory remarks regarding the question of the ‘Canon’ as it relates the Comics-medium. “If we have the problem of canon formation,” he said, “it is because we can argue we need one.” True enough: add in the fact that criticism has proliferated and we find ourselves going back and forth between Carlin and Nadel on the issue of canon formation.
And, following up on Storr’s lighthearted boxing match language, I offer a brief match recap:
On the one hand we had John Carlin, a Yale graduate who got his start as a Comp Lit student before moving on to Art History [this of course was information he offered, though a keen listener would have been able to discern his Yale/theory roots, particularly in the form of Bloomian remarks), who put forth the sort of institutional impetus towards canon-making arguments that are so common place it was hard for me not to be suspicious of them.
On the other we had Dan Nadel, who Storr posited as ‘anti-canon’ or pro an ‘alternate canon.’ If Carlin was advocating the creation of a canon so as to give a sense of what the best of comics were/had been (think Matthew Arnold, though he later softened this argument), Nadel was giving us a wider version of the canon, and trying to think of ways of (re)conceiving what the ‘canon’ might mean in a medium such as ‘Comics.’ For Nadel, the concept that comics deserve ‘special treatment’ and the continuing battle that comics have waged for themselves and for ‘legitimacy’ has done more harm for the medium, especially in the last couple of years, which – according to him – have seen the battle become non-existent.
For every ‘the canon is merely an instructional tool’ Nadel had a ‘yes, but canons tend to calcify’; for every ‘canons are made to be rethought, critiqued and expanded’ Nadel had a ‘yes, but we need to remember that the Comics canon has been made and perpetuated by and for fans, who says we have not left people behind in that initial step?’ and for the very intriguing ‘canons are strawmen to be torn apart; its just how they work: someone creates them and then other people attack it and make it broader/better’ Nadel had a ‘but can’t we skip that step? Comics aren’t literature and if anything, we should learn about the ‘mistakes’ in canon-making which disciplines like Literature have seen.’ Overall I found Nadel’s insights provoking and much more rooted in the medium at hand: Carlin all too often (as did Storr) ventured into analogous arguments (Jazz and American Film being their favourite counterparts) that did little to elucidate the Comics part of ‘Comics Canon.’
But what we saw at work was basically a difference in approaches and methodologies. Carlin, due to his academic background kept bringing up such notions as ‘discouse,’ ‘Apollonian taxonomy,’ and ‘Benjaminian Mechanical Reproduction’ that did little to ground his Bloomian and Arnoldian arguments: the canon is a list of exemplars that can be used to map out the influences and trends in comics history, in something other than institutional jargon. Carlin does have a point – we work (with)in canons – in classrooms, museums, galleries, etc. which rubs up against Nadel’s very insouciant ‘let’s keep looking back at archives trying to continually (re)discover talents to add to what would look like a web-like pantheon of examples (“__ was very good at __”).’ That said, the conversation was ripe with possibilities and you can’t really have a Nadel without a Carlin, and ideally, a Carlin without a Nadel.
And yet, they both seemed to agree on the fact that what makes hard for us to think/conceive of a comics canon is the hard-to-come-by archives due to the very ephemeral nature of comics themselves. Sure, there is TCM for movies, but what would a TCM for comics look like? And how does that reflect on the very nature of canon-making we were discussing?Altogether, the panel was very lively and ripe with interesting and thought-provoking questions – a great start to what was a great event.

Check back for commentary/’retroactive liveblogging’ of the rest of the panels:

11:00-12:15 Comics and Canon Formation
1:30-2:45 Comics and Kid’s Lit
3:00-4:15 Comics and the Literary Establishment
5:30-6:45 Comics and the Internet
7:00-8:00 Art Spiegelman and Gary Panter in conversation
8:15-9:30 Hillary Chute interviews Lynda Barry