Manuel Betancourt

Post Bang Conference or How ‘Comics & the Lit Establishment’ raised some questions

June 12, 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).3:00-4:15 Comics and the Literary Establishment
Jeet Heer (moderator, co-editor of Arguing Comics), Hillary Chute (Associate Editor of the forthcoming MetaMaus – and you might remember her from this), David Hadju (author of The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great American Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America) and Douglas Wolk (author of Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean and you can read some of his work at The Savage Critic(s)).

This was the panel I was most looking forward, mainly because, out of all the panels offered this seemed to be the most attuned to my current critical questions.

Kicking off the panel was Jeet Heer: “Hi, I’m Jeet Heer and I write on comics… [pause/laughter] It kind of sounds like we’re in an AA meeting!” – and that pretty much set the tone for the panel; light-hearted and well-meaning throughout. Heer set up the panel with a quote by Art Spiegelman, who in a recent interview had said that he felt that comics were becoming ‘too academicised.’ Chute, who currently works with Spiegelman took this up: “I constantly hear anti-academic stuff from Art, sometimes jokingly, sometimes not,” she said and went on to elaborate on what she thought was actually lacking in academic responses to the graphic narrative medium (and what probably prompts Spiegelman’s suspicion of it): quality – or as she put it, “intelligent discourse.” [ed note: in trying to find good resources to work with for a paper this past term I found a lot of unintelligent comic book academic articles, so I can’t help but agree with Chute on this one]

This sparked a more interesting discussion on the role and value of academic discussion when it comes to comics. Hadju asked: what does an intellectual/formal inquiry on a vernacular/informal art such as comics offer us? Does it deepen it? Contaminate it? These seem to be the questions floating around and it is a shame that they got lost among in the related but not quite as probing question of ‘why do people write on comics?’ Wolk quipped that he did it for the money [cue laughter]. If, as we are seeing, more and more people are writing ‘academically’ about comics (Chute cited at least five journals publishing graphic narrative special issues in the past couple of years), then what is it that they want in doing so? The panel suggested that, in beginning to create an academic body of work what we’ll be seeing is an expansion of the very vocabulary necessary to discuss comics. Commenting on the literary criticism coming from the academy, Chute added that what was lacking was an attention to the way the form of comics work, suggesting that most comics-criticism tends to shy away from visual analysis and focus instead on plot-details, disregarding the distinct language of comics. ‘How do we read comics?’ is a question that, to Chute, has not been exhaustively answered. [Heer helpfully pointed to the fact that the work of all three panelists tried to overcome the logocentric academic responses in the field: Hadju’s book tries to convey the art through his prose; Chute’s analysis focuses on the way image and word collaborate to narrate a story and Wolk’s pieces highlight the artwork as well as the writing of comics].

At this point the conversation veered in two separate but altogether complementary ways: the production of comics and the insider/outsider feel to the comics environment.

Production: while Wolk, Hadju and Heer seemed to look positively on the amount of work being produced right now in the realm of comics (The ‘Golden Age’), Chute voiced her skepticism: true enough, we have more comics being published right now, but is any of it good? Heer put it best anecdotally: before you’d go to a party and hear everyone talk about how they were working on their ‘novel’ but now, everyone’s talking about the graphic novel they’re currently working on. That is precisely the type of work Chute was dismissing: everyone is churning out graphic novels they make in 3 months, but if we look at quality graphic novels, they take years citing Spiegelman’s Maus and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home as examples. This of course speaks to the conversation of canon-formation which had taken place earlier; but not just in terms of comics but also – and this is where the ‘new-ness’ of the field exposes itself – of comics criticism. Not only do we need better material out there, but better criticism and academic attention of it.

Insider/Outsider: This, just like the canon-conversation, brought up then the role of fans. Wolk spoke of the schism between the insiders and the outsiders (a binary that he himself suggested should be thought of as a Venn Diagram): between the fans/shopkeepers and everyone else, or even between the mainstream comics circle and the indie/academic one (glibly speaking Batman vs Persepolis). Hadju spoke of the heat he had gotten from comics-fans who didn’t take nicely the fact that an ‘outsider’ was writing The Ten-Cent Plague, and of the recurrent question of ‘Can you draw?’ that he got while researching and interviewing for the book. These anecdotes, Hadju went on to explain, are indicative of the sort of sheltered and defensive (if ever so well-meaning) attitude that currently exists in the ‘Comics world.’

While the panel didn’t quite reach an answer to any of these questions (and I’m not saying it should have) it was still fruitful to see intelligent discussion surrounding these issues. To end, a comment that really stuck with me from Wolk: talking about how he catered his work to different audiences, he said that sometimes he just had to work with the assumption that his readers knew about comics even if they hadn’t: “If you’re not making the assumption that your readers don’t know comics, it becomes easier and it makes readers aware that they should know about them.” Isn’t that nicely put?

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