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.
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 Comics, ImageTexT, The 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.