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I have just finished reading The Queer Art of Failure (Duke UP, 2011), Judith Halberstam’s refreshing, clever, and perambulatory exploration of how failures (of all sorts) can function as resistance, alternative, and challenge to a wide range of limiting paradigms and structures implicitly or explicitly designed to corset our knowledge, our bodies and our lives. Halberstam asserts that her project “dismantles the logics of success and failure with which we currently live. Under certain circumstances, failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world.” (2-3). Halberstam allows herself great freedom in this work, wandering from domain to domain with gimlet-eyed scrutiny coupled with delight in her journey. I was struck by her decision to bookend her study with two chapters on animation (particularly animated films that explore liberation, such as Chicken Run [2000] and Finding Nemo [2003]), the first chapter entitled “Animating Revolt and Revolting Animation,” and the last, “Animating Failure: Ending, Fleeing, Surviving.” Though Halberstam–cultural, queer and gender theorist–does not claim to be an expert in this medium, and granted that there are significant differences between comics and animation, I found her commentary provocative and relevant to my work in comics studies. Halberstam muses:

Very few mainstream films made for adults and consumed by large audiences have
the audacity and the nerve anymore to tread on the dangerous territory of
revolutionary activity; in the contemporary climate of crude literalism even social
satire seems risky. And in a world of romantic comedies and action adventure films
there are very few places to turn in search of the alternative. I would be bold enough
to argue that it is only in the realm of animation that we actually find the alternative
hiding. Non-animated films that trade in the mise-en-scene of revolution and
transformation, films like V for Vendetta and X Men, are based on comic books
and…graphic novels. What is the relationship between new forms of animation and
alternative politics today? Can animation sustain a utopic project now, whereas, as
as Benjamin mourned, it could not in the past? (22-23)

Nice. Halberstam ends on questions just like those we pose on PencilPanelPage! So, if we take some liberties and replace the word “animation” with comics, then we can consider the modified form of the question to be “What is the relationship between new comics and alternative politics today?” Is there something inherent to the form that allows or even encourages social critique to manifest more fully? I myself don’t have full answers to this yet, but when I think about Joe Sacco’s complex and situated reporting in Footsteps in Gaza, Safe Area Gorazde, and Palestine,                                                       21DP0M133BL._SL500_AA300_

or Robert Morales and Karl Baker’s insufficiently heralded Truth: Red, White and Black (a troubling and sharply rendered account of the chemical experiments conducted on a battalion of black soldiers during WWII) or David Small’s Stitches and its indictment of both the law of the father and harmful medical practices, I think that this might be the steady thread which binds an otherwise disparate collection of graphic works on my shelves.

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Through the use of unforgettable color schemes (bloody red and black in Inverna Lockpez and Dean Haspiel’s Cuba: My Revolution), composite characters who “contain multitudes” in Josh Neufeld’s A.D. New Orleans: After the Deluge, or multiple drawn renditions of tales of shape-shifters in Matt Dembicki’s collection: Trickster: Native American Tales—A Graphic Collection, recent comic works of a serious bent aim to explore some of our most entrenched tyrannies: contested places, subjugated peoples, the dangers of the family unit, oppression, poverty, colonialism, heteronormativity, compulsory reproduction, the romance plot, alienation, mechanization…. If I think about the terms privileged by Halberstam in her introduction: “loss,” “undoing,” “unbecoming,” “not knowing,” they read as apt descriptions of what “happens” in works like those I name above (and many others). We see traumatized individuals, social groups, entire peoples harmed by the actions of the state, dominant factions, employers, parents, even self-harm in the name of hegemonic concepts. Loss of country, loss of shelter, loss of autonomy, loss of identity—these are the tropes I see repeated in the graphic memoirs and histories that are being published today. Do you see a similar trend? If so, what is it about the comics medium that lends itself to questioning the social order?

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About Adrielle Mitchell

Adrielle Mitchell is a Professor of English at Nazareth College, Rochester, NY. She is a comics scholar whose work is informed by visual and media studies, cultural theory and formalist criticism.

3 responses »

  1. Hi, Adrielle.
    I appreciate the connection you’re making between Halberstam’s work and comics. I was struck by the relevance of the chapter titles, and substituting comics for animation has a great deal of possibility.

    Revolt and Failure are indeed tropes in recent graphic novels. I would add “Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow” to the list. Breaking down boundaries, pushing back against injustice, and the seemingly interminable amount of time it takes to achieve success: all those and more are wrapped up in that story.

    Maybe you could talk a little bit more about the term ‘queer’ — how does Halberstam use the term? How does it relate to “family movies” like ‘Finding Nemo’? There is a gay character in ‘A.D.: New Orleans after the Deluge’, but I don’t know if this character could be considered ‘queer’ or if his story is considered ‘queer’ or his impact on the narrative is ‘queer.’

    Does Halberstam relate queer with alternative? And what might we say about comics if that’s the case?

  2. roytcook says:

    I agree with you that these sorts of revolutionary themes seem more common in comics than other art forms. The critical question, then, is “why?” Broadly (and simplistically), there are two possibilities:

    (1) Comics are somehow ideally (or at least better) suited to tackle these kinds of issues (when compared to other art forms, like mainstream cinema).

    (2) Comics are, solely in virtue of their marginality stemming from the status as a ‘low’ (or at least ‘lower’) art form, freer to address controversial topics (when compared to other art forms, like mainstream comics).

    The cynic in me is tempted by (2). (Also, I will be tempted by this sort of mere-contingency response to this sort of thing generally until someone works out some positive account of why (1) might be true, in virtue of the formal properties, historical or cultural role, etc. of comics. I am not saying it can’t be done, but I just haven’t seen it done yet!) However – and this is a critical and central point, it seems to me – your/Halberstam’s discussion of the presence of these sorts of ‘revolutionary’ themes in children’s animation complicates the issues, since these are about as ‘mainstream’ as it gets, and one would (if one was in the sort of cynical frame of mind just mentioned) think this would be the last place such challenging thematic content would appear.

    PS: I disagree entirely with Halberstam regarding the lack of such ‘revolutionary’ content in action adventure television/film, however – at least if science fiction counts here. Galaxy Quest (pointed, self-reflexive cultural satire) and Farscape (revolutionary characterizations of gender roles) jump to mind here (as merely the most immediately striking of many mainstream examples).

  3. Hi Frank and Roy,

    Thank you very much for your engaged and thoughtful comments/questions! To Frank’s query first: “queer” is a rather delightfully multivalent term at this point, and though it has its origins, of course, in the gay sexual identity and/or practice of real persons, characters, etc., it is no longer confined to this literal interpretation. Asserting that one is “queer” is not the same as saying one is gay, as attested to by the growing acronym used to designate a sexual continuum– gay becomes lesbian/gay becomes lesbian/gay/bi becomes LGBT (adding transgender) and now LGBTQ (lesbian gay bi trans queer and/or questioning), or LGBTQI (adds intersex), and we’ll see where we’re headed next. Politically, socially, many are claiming the “queer” term for their own, to designate something other than the literal question of who does what to whom, instead preferring to suggest something closer to not-mainstream, not-traditional, not-heteronormative, or framed positively, actively resistant, open, alter, alternative, radical, etc. It’s a shapeshifty word, and often shows up in verb form now, as in “queering the academy.” Thus, Neufeld’s very stereotypical old-school gay character would not be seen as “queer” by some, though others would include him. As Halberstam uses it, it is less of a sexual term than a political one, and has to do with many forms of resistance to hegemonic ideas and practices of all sorts. So, then the question becomes “how do comics support this project of resistance?”

    Roy, I don’t buy (1) at all. Though I have read arguments for this position (that there is something about the form itself [sequential, visual/verbal, palimpsestic in the sense that you can read a panel, a page, the whole work in multiple ways, simultaneously] that lends itself to certain content), I am resistant to this for the same reason that we don’t say it suits certain genres better than others. (2) is much more compelling to me, though I still struggle with the low-status designation since it’s historically and culturally contingent, fluctuating, etc. The status of comics in the U.S. has varied over time, and is not the same, of course as their status in Belgium, South Africa, Japan, Mexico, or India. Logically, of course, the status of comics in these latter countries also fluctuate over time. So…how do we fix the status of comics at “low” (I’m hoping for clarity from Bart Beaty on this point, when I have a chance to read Comics vs. Art when the semester ends and I have more time to read…)?

    As for children’s and/or mainstream texts being the “last place” one might hope to find challenging content, I think they can be found to have quite a bit, when read a certain way. I’m thinking of Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables,Tove Jansson’s Moomin series and so many other works of children’s literature that are full of sly political and social commentary meant, perhaps, for adult readers and clever children; more innocent children might never notice such commentary. Mainstream movies/television, etc. can be plumbed for their subversions, too, and, though I concede that there is plenty of pablum out there, we’re also seeing the welcoming of more complex storylines, characters and dialogue in so-called mainstream shows and films. “Regular” people seem pleased that they’ve been given a little more to chew on, if user reviews are any indication….

    Thanks again to both of you for your thoughts and questions!

    –Adrielle

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