Welcome to the 2nd entry in the PPP RRR (PencilPanelPage Round Robin Retrospective), our special five-part series acknowledging the one-year anniversary of this blog. Each of the regular contributors has the pleasurable task of revisiting the posts of a randomly assigned other regular contributor, in order to select a favorite and provide a rationale for the choice. What is wonderful about this exercise is that it invites all of us—regular contributors, guest posters, and readers—to revisit content that has receded into the past, yet deserves additional consideration. Just as we routinely reread comics, we ought to reread and reconsider thoughtful and generative comics scholarship like that evinced in this blog. This should serve as an invitation to you to peruse our archives, too, and perhaps add new comments to earlier posts, or enter the round robin conversation in the comments section of this five-week retrospective.
One of the unintended side effects of consistent freshness is the speed at which we move on to new content; a new week brings a new post and onward we progress, perhaps before the discussion engendered by a previous post has reached its natural end. Almost without exception, PencilPanelPage has offered a new post each week since its inception; this refresh rate is commendable in ordinary blog terms, but if you factor in the length, complexity, and originality of the posts (along with the laudable amount of synthetic extras such as links to concurrent scholarship off-blog, links to previous posts, multimodal links, page and panel figures, and other connections), it is rather remarkable. I can say this without self-congratulation as I have only recently joined the ranks of the regular contributors; it is Qiana Whitted, Roy Cook and Frank Bramlett who have done most of the heavy lifting this year.
Another relative newcomer to “regular” contributor status is Michael A. Johnson, Assistant Professor of French at the University of Texas-Austin, whose first regular column was posted this past June, and whose extant posts (which can be accessed here) I have enjoyed revisiting this week. Though they are few in number as yet, they already reveal the flexibility of Michael’s thought, his non-parochial approach, and the breadth of his interests. Michael’s explorations have included genre studies (steampunk comics, foodie comics), era and interdisciplinary considerations (comics and the medieval), formalist takes (silent comics), and phenomenological inquiry (comic reading in public spaces/LCS’s). It is this last post (which was actually Michael’s first regular post), “What Kind of Social Space is the Comic Book Shop?” that captivates me most this week, for it raises a number of complex and toothsome questions that, I believe, were not fully explored in the follow-up discussion to the column.
Michael chose to situate his inquiry into issues of age, “appropriate” readership, and potential reader discomfort in an actual space–that of the local comic shop– asking such questions as these: “What kind of sociability arises when people read standing silently alongside one another? Is the comic book shop still a predominantly masculine space? How does the commingling of readers from different age groups affect the intelligibility of the space to the non-initiated?” I believe, however, that this situated question can easily be extended to examine any place of public consumption or avowal of comics, including spaces like those added by respondents in the follow-up discussion to Michael’s post (trade bookstores, airports/airplanes, etc.), but also those traversed or occupied by adults who attend a reading, see a filmic adaptation, take a comics-centered college class, attend a comics-themed conference (I’m thinking about the lengthy discussion about the medium I had with a taxi-driver on the way to ICAF a few years ago; I’m sure many of you have engaged in similar conversations with initiates and non-initiates alike), as well as virtual spaces like that of this blog and others like it, the University of Florida Comix-Scholars List, and publisher’s websites, ejournals, and online discussion boards.
Due to the interrogative nature of PencilPanelPage posts, Michael was not at liberty to provide an extended answer to his own very provocative questions, but he did hint at some of his thinking in the remainder of the column. I was most fascinated by his consideration of reader shame, as I think this is an under-explored angle, and an intriguing one. Michael shows, in a single allusive paragraph, that he is not thinking simply about adult anxieties about appearing juvenile; rather, he is burrowing down a bit further into what might be a more porous, and hence, a more troubling, dividing line between children/adolescents and adults:
…[R]eading in public mimics the attitude of shame as Silvan Tomkins describes it (the lowering of the eyelids, the lowering of the eyes, the hanging of the head)….Very much related to the feeling of shame that public reading arouses is the question of age-appropriateness, a question that still haunts the medium itself to the frustration of many.”
Though it may “frustrate” many, this question (the unspoken “What’s not quite right about you that makes you [still] like this medium/revel in the puerile pictorial/want to silently stand next to minors engaged in the same activity?”) does indeed “haunt the medium itself” (and its aficionados) and, rather than hide from it and wish it away, I think it offers us a very fruitful area to explore. This shame, in its most essential form, signals that an individual recognizes that s/he is receiving pleasure from an activity that is, in one or more ways, slightly illicit. Part of this certainly comes from the fact that a great number of comics (regardless of intended or de facto reader demographic, genre, or even degree of “seriousness/literariness”) contain “edgy” content – nudity, subversive cultural and political content, sexuality, frankly expressive language, taboo topics. It also comes, I think, from a very elementally onanistic aspect of comic readership, the “it’s all mine, secret” experience now brought into daylight, and set next to another’s simultaneously onanistic pleasure in, oops, hmmm, the same thing. If that other happens to be a minor, and you are not, there has to be a frisson of weirdness experienced.
Where shame meets pleasure, many directions (pro-social and anti-social alike; generative and destructive) may be taken; for the comics reader, there is probably a whole nexus of cognitive and affective responses entailed by the commingling of these phenomenological experiences. I think it’s safe to say that reading tinged with shame is a heady experience: the read object acquires a kind of fetishized glow, the act of reading a heightened sensuality. Though I am neither psychologist nor biologist, I wager that body temperature rise, pupil dilation, and narrowing of mental and visual focus all contribute, in circumstances like this, to quite a kinesthetically enhanced reading experience. This should often result in a more alert, more attentive reading and provides, for me, a satisfying explanation for the particular zeal with which we usually talk about our subject, not to mention that strange, feverish look that usually attends our words (and our public, silent, reading visages).
So, I’m inclined to heartily agree with Michael that shame is there, haunting the medium and its public (as well as private) spheres; my, perhaps perverse, belief is that this is a very beneficial state of affairs, imbuing both the creation and reception of comics with a very distinct and alive jouissance.