As Roy explained in the last post, PencilPanelPage is celebrating its first anniversary with a Round-Robin Retrospective. What this means is that one of the regular contributors to the blog will reflect back on their favorite post by another contributor to the blog over the next five weeks.
I will be taking a retrospective look at my favorite post by Qiana here today. But first let me try to explain how difficult a task it was to pick a favorite. Qiana’s posts are organized around questions that reflect the full breadth of comics studies, ranging from questions of a formal, functional, and archival nature to those of a more anecdotal and speculative nature. There is not a single essay of Qiana’s that does not stick with me for days after reading it. I especially enjoy ruminating on her more speculatively framed questions. In her post on Toni Morrison’s novel Paradise and short story “Recitatif,” for example, Qiana creates a thought experiment, imagining a limit case where graphic adaptation might fail to convey how the author plays with her readers’ faulty visual assumptions about race and social identity. Qiana’s thought experiment is especially exciting in that it poses a potential challenge to claims she had made in a published essay concerning the way in which graphic adaptations of African American literature revisit and reframe the visual field that the literary works initially worked against, ever conscious of the visual and spectacular origins of the racial prejudice. As Qiana concludes: “I am convinced that comics can be used to tell any kind of tale, but perhaps Paradise and “Recitatif” are truly bound by their medium.” This kind of thought experiment, to my mind, exemplifies everything that is thrilling about scholarship and comics scholarship in particular.
But my favorite of Qiana’s posts would have to be her most recent, “Should We Describe Comics Rather Than Define Them?” In her usual speculative mode, she reflects on Samuel Delany’s assertion that the project of defining comics (so central to the work of scholars and artists like McCloud, Groensteen, Peeters, and company) can only reinforce the problematic belief that paraliterary genres lack the quality and complexity of literary works. As Qiana explains, Delany offers an alternative, calling for projects of description instead of definition:
Delany advocates a different approach to genre collections such as comics, handling them as “social objects” that are incompatible with rigorous definitions and instead, “exist rather as an unspecified number of recognition codes (functional descriptions, if you will) shared by an unlimited population, in which new and different examples are regularly produced” (239).
Qiana concludes by asking what is gained (or lost) when scholars describe the comics they study, rather than arguing over how to define them.
But what I love most about this post is the way it reflects on what might be called the inner life of comics scholars whose anxieties about the legitimacy of their work are expressed in discourses of mastery. Delany writes that, “our discussions are striated by a fear that without the authoritative appeal to origins and definitions as emblems of some fancied critical mastery, our observations and insights will not be welcomed, will not be taken for the celebrational pleasure that they are.” Qiana cites Delany here in part as a way of reflecting on the enterprise of “our little corner of the blogosphere at PPP,” which, as she points out, has privileged functional description over definition and, I would add, has also been a space for the expression of celebrational pleasures rather than fancied critical mastery.
Finally, Qiana’s latest post spurred a lengthy and complex conversation in the comments section where Roy and others reflected on ways to think about a version of the definitional project that does not extend from fear that the pure delight we take in reading comics might undermine our scholarly seriousness. Roy defends the definitional project without opposing it to functional description. I would add that it is worth reflecting on the relationship between description and definition (are they opposed? overlapping? incommensurable to one another?). To what degree is “pure” description possible without at least implicit operating definitions to scaffold it? The question reminds me of the debate in literary studies concerning what Sharon Marcus and Stephen Best call “surface reading” in opposition to depth reading or symptomatic reading. But to question the relationship between definition and description is not to contradict Qiana’s (and Delany’s) critique of the definitional project, which I see as driven by a queer politics that values the partial and the relational over the monolithic logic of mastery.