Guest post by Adrielle Mitchell.

At its base, it is a very old question.  When haven’t art and literary critics been accused of sucking the life out of the works they examine?  The traces of uneasy relationships between artist and critic, between artwork and critique, are visible everywhere, explicitly addressed in essays like Arnold Bennett’s “Artists and Critics,” audible in snarky remarks made by both camps about the other, and implicit in the choice of some writers, artists and performers to refrain from reading reviews of their work and, in some cases, to refrain from reading or contributing to any theories that aim to define or analyze genres, movements, or stylistic groupings that might conceivably include their creations.

The critic engages in interpretation, giving voice, presumably, to aspects of a work that might go either under-recognized or missed altogether.  While one critic might believe s/he leaves the work unscathed, eschewing ventriloquism in favor of a cooperative, audience-directed role (museum guide, teacher, translator?), another might be quite comfortable maintaining a clear divide between the work and the theory it engenders, with both pieces–the artwork and the critique– standing alone in parallel universes.  The latter critic, like the artist who reads no reviews, feels no responsibility to communicate directly with his/her counterpart, and the paths of art and criticism fork ever more sharply.

This past May (2012), Professor Hillary Chute of the University of Chicago actively fought this divide, mounting Comics:  Philosophy and Practice, a strikingly ambitious academic conference, at her home institution.  She invited influential visual culture theorist W.J.T. Mitchell and seventeen major cartoonists to participate in panel discussions, interviews and roundtables designed to foster authentic and future-focused dialogue across the theory/practice spectrum.  Chute and her collaborators brought Art Spiegelman, Lynda Barry, Joe Sacco, Chris Ware, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Daniel Clowes and others onto the stage to argue amongst themselves—and with academics like Mitchell and Chute—about the medium, its impact on the lives of comic artists, its formal attributes, and tentatively, its future.

In lieu of delivering a formal keynote address as asked, Art Spiegelman decided it would be more fun to let W.J.T. Mitchell interview him (in a session titled “What the %@۞§!! Happened to Comics?”), tellingly asserting that he prefers a less professorial role than that usually assumed in a keynote lecture:  “It seemed better to me to be interviewed at a university like this one by one of its leading scholars because that way I get to be the wiseguy instead of the stuffy scholar.”  Mitchell parries:  “That’s my role:  stuffy scholar,” with Spiegelman eagerly overlapping with “You have to do it; you have to play your part.”  (The video of the complete interview is available here.)

The audience laughed, of course, at this exchange, but didn’t laugh as much when the dichotomy became more pronounced in a later session, an ostensibly informal interview between Chute and Alison Bechdel. Hardly strangers to each other, Chute and Bechdel have been working closely for some time now, including co-teaching a comics seminar (“Lines of Transmission:  Comics and Autobiography”) that very semester (Spring 2012) and engaging –according to Chute– in hours of discussion related to aspects of the conference topic, and more pointedly, directly related to Bechdel’s oeuvre and Chute’s critical enterprise (evinced, most recently, in her Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics).  One would expect–as Bechdel had invited Chute into her studio, and presumably, into her creative process–that this conversation would comfortably continue the long-term one they have been having.

By Jessica Abel

But instead, it was–for the most part–a stilted exchange in which Bechdel showed little interest in responding to Chute’s inquiries into her comics and her process.  Shrugging often, shifting frequently in her chair, and offering little in the way of commentary, Bechdel made it evident that such dialogue between academics and artists can be costly.  Jessica Abel, in her comic treatment of the conference in the July/August 2012 issue of the University of Chicago Magazine notes that she became especially aware of this problem while watching Chute and Bechdel interact:  “There was a tension between the purported purpose of the conference, which was this academic examination of comics, and then the artists being kind of resistant to that.”  Intent on capturing highlights and exciting moments of the conference in her review, Abel does not further explore this provocative, and I think, important, insight, but she does allow it to surface.

W.J.T Mitchell, in the previously noted session with Art Spiegelman, wonders whether Spiegelman might address the deleterious effects of establishment (university, publishing, museum, high culture) acceptance of a demotic medium, offering these initial comments:  “What if we began by talking about the curse of comics….partly about its low status but could it also be a curse now that it’s suddenly become an academic subject?  Becoming an academic subject is not always an unmixed blessing, so we need to face that head on.”  I am very amused by Mitchell’s ambivalent double negative (“not always an unmixed blessing”); while bravely questioning the purpose and circumstances of the very conference in which he is participating, he reveals a need to soften the query through language that prevaricates.  Spiegelman’s response is useful, and one line from it –“a Faustian deal [made by comics]” has trickled its way into the current discourse on comics in academia:

It was necessary for comics to like find their way into libraries, bookstores, universities and museums because otherwise there wouldn’t be an apparatus that could sustain what had been sustained by Sunday newspapers and pamphlet comics and things like that in the latter part of the century, and it was a Faustian deal because it gets tainted by that and I was part of the taint.  I was part of the problem at a certain point.

We know what happened when Maus received its “special” Pulitzer, and started showing up in secondary and university classes everywhere (I remember when students who had read the text and teachers who had taught it “forgot” or never noticed that it was a comic; it was the exception that ushered in the wave of graphic works taught far more comfortably today).  For the author of this seminal work—this quintessentially academicized comic–to suggest that he was “part of the taint” is deliciously provocative and worthy of our attention.

These tensions are somewhat obvious, but I have become sensitized to many more as I engage in comics studies, among them:

  • The polite but rather persistent non-engagement of major comics creators with the critical work that closely examines their art.  I hear tones of bemusement, distant gratitude, dismissal, forbearance when this work is mentioned by interviewers, panel chairs, etc. Some of the most intellectual creators, whose comics contain  substantial and complex analyses of various sorts– Ware, Clowes, Seth, Burns, Mazzucchelli, Barry, Bechdel, are willing to participate in academic conferences, comics symposia, university readings, but seem reluctant to speak about (or even read?) the critical pieces that examine their own work.
  • The mostly non-overlapping audiences of events like those sponsored by ICAF, the Center for Cartoon Studies, MoCCA and many academic organizations like the Modern Language Association, Pop Culture Association, National Communication Association on the one hand, and Comic-Cons, Wizard World and the like, on the other.  The Toronto Comic Arts Festival is a notable exception that I’ve experienced; there, a somewhat genuine mingling occurs, but if you parse the program and the exhibits closely, you’ll see that even there, separations shape the schedule and venue assignments.  I hear that things are a little better at Angouleme; is this a North American problem?
  • My friend, Tom G.:  comic artist, teacher and insightful comics reader.  He’ll convene a comics reading group to dissect Ware’s Acme Library within an inch of its life; he’ll deliver fascinating lectures on reading and creating comics to his high school and college students, to my students, to anyone within an eight-foot radius.  He’ll mount new installations of his work and that of other regional artists.  He’ll collect one-off comics at shows until his backpack becomes a lethal weapon; he’ll add new graphic works to his fine collection, and read them nightly for decades.  He’ll champion the neglected, haunting work of Jerry Moriarty (Jack Survives).  He’ll puzzle over a panel for days.  Yet, he all but refuses to read academic studies of comics.

So, I’m uneasy.  Comics studies is growing at almost embarrassing degrees of magnitude, and comic artists sit alongside us sometimes at our communal events.  We, its scholars, celebrate, interpret, champion, lambast, dissect, chew, share, compare, synthesize, contextualize, the art, and often, the artists themselves.  In doing so, are we benefitting the medium through a symbiotic relationship in which all parties move forward together?  Or are we, perhaps, engaged in a contiguous practice that depends utterly upon works gleaned from a parallel domain but ultimately neither harms nor helps them?  Finally, might we even go so far as to say that the critical endeavor we engage in does, in fact, cannibalize its host, rendering harm as it feeds?

Adrielle Mitchell is an associate professor of English at Nazareth College, Rochester, NY, where she regularly offers a course on International Graphic Narrative. Recent essays on comics have appeared in Studies in ComicsImageTexTThe College English Association Critic and Lan Dong’s just released collection, Teaching Comics and Graphic Narratives:  Essays on Theory, Strategy and Practice.  She has delivered papers on graphic narratives at conferences organized by the International Comic Arts Forum, the University of Florida, Modern Language Association, Northeast Modern Language Association, Fordham University and others.  

About Qiana Whitted

Associate Professor of English and African American Studies

7 responses »

  1. Adrielle, thanks so much for this terrific post and its provocative question. I really wish I had been able to go to the Univ of Chicago conference. The panels have provided more opportunity for conversation among comics scholars than I have heard in some time.

    I have to say that as limited as my own interaction with comic artists and writers has been, I have been quite surprised by how friendly, open, and humble they are when asked about their craft. A few actually seemed to appreciate the critical attention and are especially pleased to hear about student reactions to their work. (I’m often amazed by the fact that I have the opportunity to interact with them in any capacity at all, given that many of the novelists and poets that I study are no longer living or — like Toni Morrison – so huge that I’ll never get to speak to them in person, although I did sit two rows away from her at a conference once.) Nevertheless, I have also observed both the bemusement and suspicion from comics creators that you’ve described so well in this post, as well as the sometimes alarmingly cannibalistic approaches of comic scholars.

    On a recent Comixscholar listserv thread about this very question, Noah Berlatsky suggested that the comic creators’ distrust of criticism may also have its roots in historical tensions – a very significant point and one that is specific to the medium (although the tensions between the arts and critics are certainly not limited to comics). Since the 1900s, comics have often been picked over and denounced for their influence on young audiences or in relation to more “legitimate” cultural forms. Even fan communities that are encouraged to nurture a proprietary relationship with the characters and titles they love can become relentlessly antagonistic. Given the library bans, boycotts, Senate hearings, obscenity charges, and accusations that comics are the reason why little Johnny can’t read – do you also think that these historical misunderstandings and misrepresentations of comics are also a part of the persistant non-engagement that you mentioned?

    • timscomics says:

      A follow-up to Qiana’s follow-up question…those “misunderstandings and misrepresentations” have certainly contributed to the view that comics are beneath our scholarly attention, but haven’t those attacks, for the most part, come from folks other than academics and critics?

      I’ve also been following the conversation on the comixscholar list serve, but one of the points that hasn’t been made yet is that both creators and scholars/critics are working hard to convince the uninitiated that the comics medium is worthy of serious attention. While comics creators may relish their “outsider” status for lots of good reasons, simultaneously artists are seeking a wider audience and would relish (I would think) their works being taught in classrooms at all levels. Critics and scholars, likewise, are also striving for legitimacy for the medium. I teach comics at the university, and I frequently have to argue that they are worth teaching to college students.

      Shouldn’t there be a stronger, more sustained strategic alliance between creators and critics to advocate for the art form’s wider appeal and acceptance?

  2. So I take a short leave from keeping up on comixscholar posts in order to get a little writing done, and miss a 42 and counting thread on the very topic I was simultaneously thinking about? Sigh. Thanks to both of you for connecting things up, and for sending me back to the listserve. Qiana, thank you for your thoughtful response to my musings. The whole question of the academy and its relation to the arts, particularly those arts that have commercial connections and are perceived as “lowbrow” or “nobrow,” continues to challenge those of us, as @timscomics reminds us, who believe in expanded audiences and strategic allegiances in support of the medium we champion.

    Of course, it’s also a particularly American dichotomy; I’ve been made to understand that other nations (Japan, Belgium, France, Mexico, England, India…) have not engaged in such a protracted, quasi-moral battle with this artform. I don’t doubt that the distrust of academia on the part of comics artists has some connection to this history, but I guess I am particularly interested in a certain subset of artists and critics (and artist-critics) whose approaches, in my opinion, share a great deal of affinity. Though I didn’t fully express this in the post, I’m thinking about, for example, a topic like memory, and the fact that I can consult both David Mazzucchelli’s _Asterios Polyp_ and literary critics for insights into the representation of its workings. It saddens me that there isn’t more of this kind of shared enterprise — comics artists and critics thinking together, reading/creating together, sharing the stage together to examine a shared interest.

    To @timscomics, it seems to me that most comics artists are, as you suggest, indeed pleased to be taught, and do get great pleasure from students reading their work. Whether they feel the same way about professors reading it and talking about it, I’m not really sure (smile). Your insight into the fact that both groups are struggling for legitimacy and that this should engender alliance makes sense to me, and certainly could be one of the arguments we use when we bring both groups together. I would also like to see more of the above, too: authentic shared discourse around a problem, theme, query, formal aspect, to which artist and critic bring unique attention, perhaps following the model of interdisciplinary work.

  3. Franny Howes says:

    As a comics scholar (working on my PhD in Rhetoric and Writing) and comics creator (I draw a comic called “Oh Shit, I’m in Grad School), this is something I think about a lot.

    I have a problem with seeing literary criticism as the default mode of comics studies. Comics librarianship, for example, and people working on comics and literacy studies have a much different relationship with comics creators than people writing yet another literary interpretation of Maus. People like Gene Luen Yang have keynoted at the American Library Association and been well received. So, when one says that there’s a conflict between comics scholars and comics creators, it’s a particular kind of comics scholar who is getting blank stares from Alison Bechdel (who brilliantly satirizes cultural studies discourse in the later years Dykes to Watch Out For, if you’ve never read it).

    Another problem is that academics more broadly defined (and people in my discipline are definitely guilty of this one too) exoticize people who can draw. Plain and simple. It’s like writing is a teachable learnable act, but once you stop using letters it becomes a magical fairy gift that I only possess because I was born with it and they could never have. Which is bullshit!

    Comics are experiencing academic colonialism, and I worry that comics knowledges held by diverse creators are being pushed aside so that comics can be assimilated by the imperial university knowledge factory. There is a violence of canon formation. For all these reasons and more my work centers on decolonial feminist comics methodology and pedagogy.

  4. Thank you for this article, which touches on something many of us are concerned about from different angles, being both part of the problem discussed and seeking to interrogate it.

    I raised some of these issues amongst colleagues at the Leeds Comics Forum from 2010, during which some of us experienced a similar kind of tension not only between artists and academics but also between academics and fans (attracted to the event mostly due to the presence of artists, not academics). My own view is that keynote presentations during academic conferences should be given by academics. These academics can, of course, also be “practitioners” or comics authors (and viceversa). A role does not preclude the other. When I see an issue is when as academics participating in a comics studies conference we become sort of parasite figures, our opinions second rate in comparison to the ultimate truth of the empirical voice of the Artist.

    This issue is not so clear-clut, though. Perhaps comics studies is one of the few areas where the creators of the object of study get to discuss things directly with those who study them. I am not sure it happens in contemporary film or literary studies, for example. Having said that I have witnessed events in which the participation of artists amongst a mainly academic audience has been very fruitful (for instance, Chris Ware in Copenhagen, May 2010), even when there’s been a certain resistance to engage with or humour academic discourse (whatever that means).

    I certainly do not believe comics are “experiencing academic colonialism”. On the contrary, most academics not interested in comics might describe it as the opposite. What I have experienced, on the other hand, is established academics, who did not build their academic careers by working on comics, suddenly develop an interest. (This is good, but it also reveals interesting problematics). For example, I have stopped counting the academic comics conference presentations I have attended these last 6 years in which the speaker started with “I don’t know much about comics, but…” To my knowledge, this is something that doesn’t happen (without consequences) in other self-respecting academic conferences.

    This somewhat recent interest is often focused on those comics that sit comfortably within the parameters established by whatever disciplinary trend is getting funding or recognition at the moment. This is why it’s always been easier to convince a traditional academic committee to allow you to write on Spiegelman or Bechdel than on Quino or Pepo (it depends on the department, institution, country, current funding trends…). Once again, this is not a exclusive problem of comics studies, but of academia in general. Sadly, some people will only study what they get funding to study.

    My own perspective is that generally speaking comics studies as an heterogeneous discipline is very fortunate to be able to engage in dialogue with living, contemporary practitioners. The tensions between scholarship and artistic practice are not unique to comics scholarship, and in my opinion these tensions do not have to be perceived as negative or unwanted.

  5. Thanks Adrielle, and commenters, for this engaging discussion, and thanks, Ernesto for calling my attention to this piece on Comics Grid.

    First, I feel compelled to throw in a bit of context about the Alison Bechdel/Hillary Chute conversation, as context is everything, or so Iian McGilchrist is still saying in my head from a lecture I listened to yesterday. I was fortunate enough to attend the U of Chicago conference, and the conversation between Hillary & Alison took place at the dinner hour after a long, long, astonishing and exhausting day of panels. This was unfortunate, as I think everyone was exhausted. It felt, sitting in that room, like this situation had a huge influence on Alison’s befuddled state of mind, and therefore the specific comments arising out of that panel. Only she can speak to her state of mind, of course, but I felt I wanted to add that comment.

    Adrielle, you say that you would love to see,”comics artists and critics thinking together, reading/creating together, sharing the stage together to examine a shared interest.”
    I’d like to propose that you attend a Graphic Medicine conference (www.graphicmedicine.org) because I think we’ve been working hard to achieve this kind of creator/academic balance in our arena, which is the intersection of comics and the medicine/health. On our site you can hear podcasts of presentations from our conferences, but the collaborative feel is more apparent if you attend.

    Lastly, Franny, thank you for your very articulate comment about the artificial dichotomy of people who “can” draw and who “can’t.” Trying to break that barrier down is a big part of the work I try to do with medical students, and through Graphic Medicine, with academics – and via Lynda Barry – why I was listening to Iian McGilchrist. In my ideal world, academics would consider drawing and comics artists would be perhaps use a footnote or two…

  6. […] Adrielle Mitchell is an Associate Professor of English at Nazareth College, Rochester, NY, where she teaches courses in literature, writing and culture, including a course on “International Graphic Narrative.”  She is a comics scholar whose work is informed by visual and media studies, cultural theory and formalist criticism. Recent articles include: “Exposition and Disquisition:  Non-Fiction Graphic Narratives and Comics Theory in the Literature Classroom” in Lan Dong, ed., Teaching Comics and Graphic Narratives: Essays on Theory, Strategy and Practice (2012); “Distributed Identity:  Networking Image Fragments in Graphic Memoirs” in Studies in Comics (2010); “Graphic Journeys:  Figuring Americans Abroad in Thompson’s Carnet de Voyage and Abel’s La Perdida,” in the College English Association Critic (2010); and “Spectral Memory, Sexuality and Inversion: An Arthrological Study of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic” in ImageTexT (2009).  Recently, she realized that many of her childhood favorites (Tove Jansson’s Finn Family Moomintroll; Edward Gorey’s entire oeuvre; Mad, Cracked and Crazy magazines; Spiegelman’s Garbage Pail Kids cards; Tarot decks; the photonovel of Lamorisse’s film, The Red Balloon) are imagetexts and that she can return to them now “for scholarly purposes.” […]

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