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Comics Studies Comes of Age…?

Dominic Davies

 

Comics and Power: Representing and
Questioning Culture,
Subjects and Communities
edited by Rikke Platz Cortsen, Erin La Cour

and Anne Magnussen
Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015.
355 pp.
ISBN: 9781443870863
£52.99

 

 

It is tempting to say that today, comics studies is at last ‘coming of age’. Rather obviously, such a statement eschews the work of many critics who have for decades worked both as sociologists and cultural theorists, documenting and mapping the complex webs of comics cultures, on the one hand, and those who have honed their skills as literary, artistic and formal analysts of comics, on the other. Indeed, pointing out this tendency in comics criticism to divide sociopolitical readings of comics from more formal, closely read ones (predominantly associated with anglophone and francophone traditions respectively), Rikke Platz Cortsen, Erin La Cour and Anne Magnussen’s relatively recent edited collection of essays, Comics and Power: Representing and Questioning Culture, Subjects and Communities, sets out to meld them together through fourteen chapter studies.

The collection’s wide-ranging essays encompass canonised and lesser known comics, from the work of Joe Sacco and Eddie Campbell through to David Mack and Cecilia Torudd, and tackle comics of all kinds, from graphic novels and manga to webcomics and other online gaming cultures. This broad survey shows how social and political contexts shape both the institutional conditions and formal dimensions of comics production, as power flows through and warps their malleable architecture of borders, frames and gutters. Comics also transmit power, of course, reshaping and recalibrating the contexts that give rise to them and, these chapters show, are variously complicit with—‘representing’—and resistant to—‘questioning’—discriminatory power relations through their formal strategies. Reading Comics and Power, as a reviewer there is an almost instinctive impulse to write that, finally, ‘comics studies comes of age’.

The atmosphere encapsulated in this phrase is now much rehearsed in reviews and articles, and is reflected in the surge in academic comics journals and the appearance of comics on courses in literature and other departments across the US (and increasingly the UK). Indeed, it was recently re-articulated by Dr Lee Konstantinou, assistant professor at the University of Maryland, in the title of his review of long-standing comics critics Bart Beaty and Benjamin Woo’s short book, The Greatest Comic Book of All Time: Symbolic Capital and the Field of American Comic (2016), which tackles the dilemmas thrown up by the slow canonisation process to which comics are currently being subject. There, Konstantinou stresses that comics criticism is as old as comics themselves, that comics’ formal agility allows them to prod and poke at the borders of other cultural fields, and that when properly contextualised comics can shed new light on all kinds of literary, social and art history.

Most importantly, though, Konstantinou challenges Beaty and Woo for prioritising self-reflexive comics—that is, comics that draw attention to their self-designated status as a ‘comic’. This might sound a bit odd, but for comics readers, ‘breaking the fourth wall’, as it is known, is a common occurrence, and a technique of which the best comics writers and artists are fond. However, as Konstantinou continues, celebrating (and through that celebration, canonising) self-reflexive comics risks losing sight of the various institutions, from publishing companies to the film industry to universities, that have moulded comics production, if not culture more generally, into the shape that it takes today. In light of this, I think it likely that it was his editors, not Konstantinou himself, who chose the title. But the phrase remains there nonetheless, functioning to lever open a space in ‘serious’ academic discourse into which comics are then awkwardly wedged.

The statement, ‘coming of age’, clearly references the enduring link between comics and childhood, and the fact that the comics form has long been associated with (if not actually consumed by) younger readerships. There is something condescending about this ageing, as notions of cultural maturity are projected onto divisions between ‘popular’ and ‘literary’, or ‘low’ and ‘high’ culture. There is assumption that as readers age—if they age ‘correctly’—they transform from consumers of ‘low’ culture to ‘higher’ literary and artistic forms. That is, they ‘grow up’, they stop reading teenage fiction and finally get to grips with Joyce. The statement, ‘comics studies has come of age’ is clearly made from the perspective of the literary critic, even as (or perhaps because of the fact that) comics are slowly appearing more and more literature modules and where they are proving to be increasingly popular. Whilst disciplines such as film and other kinds of media studies have certainly been looked down upon by the literary critic in the past, never so frequently have these been patronised to the extent that comics studies is now experiencing. But comics are coming, and students want to study them.

Coming from the figure of the literary critic, who currently has significantly more institutional and cultural (not to mention financial) capital to play with, the statement, ‘comics studies comes of age’ also naively (if not arrogantly) assumes that comics studies should follow the significant developments made in literary criticism. It suggests that comics and written prose, and the tools we use to analyse them, are simply interchangeable. There are, of course, some fruitful intersections between these critical fields—indeed, I would encourage an open, shared toolbox of critical spanners, wrenches and screwdrivers with which we can dismantle the visual and narrative dimensions of all kinds of texts. But such a toolbox needs to start out with both fields on an equal playing field, not one telling the other, as an older brother speaking to his younger sibling, that it has at last started to grow up and can now join in the ball game.

It is fascinating to me to work on a culturally, institutionally and academically marginalised subject at one of the most recognisable universities in the world. Indeed, that I do so is not only in and of itself indicative of the slow processes of institutionalisation and canonisation currently taking place in the field of comics production; it is to assume an astonishingly privileged position that allows me a front row seat from which to see these processes taking place in real time. Originally a literature student by training, in my previous experience canons had always already been there. By contrast, it is incredible to see how a fluid cultural landscape, when lightly touched by the powerful finger of higher education institutions, morphs tectonically into a fixed and deeply striated panorama.

This is why critical studies such as Comics and Power are so important. Combining readings of graphic novels, children’s comics, comix, webcomics, and so on, the collection both admits comics into a thoroughly academic critical practice, whilst resisting the dangerous processes of selective canonisation. Power is everywhere, the essays collected here remind us, flowing through the comics themselves, yes, but also the hands of the critics who write about them and the institutions in which those critics work. In this respect, maybe the current institutionalisation of comics studies offers a unique opportunity. Comics critics must remain highly attuned to the power of ‘the canon’ and its enduring legacies, something that literary studies, now so institutionalised, remains (despite the best efforts of many critics) somewhat beholden. The current cross-disciplinary acceptance of comics as a form worth of academic study offers a rare moment to excavate the power dynamics that shape these processes, and watching it closely will reveal valuable lessons from which all kinds of other literary and cultural criticism might learn.

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Dominic Davies is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Oxford, and convener of the TORCH Network, ‘Comics and Graphic Novels: The Politics of Form’.

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