Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Cultural Legitimacy for Comics: Act Like You've Found It

A Comics Studies Reader (University Press of Mississippi, 2009), edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester, offers itself as a concise survey of the scholarly field of comics studies, one that its editors hope will be, as its back cover boasts, “ideal for classroom use.” For someone like me, a past comic book artist who has been away from the field and would like to catch up, and is now a college instructor contemplating developing either a studio or art history course of some kind that would involve readings on cartooning, this anthology promises to serve a double purpose: as a useful “state-of-the-field” overview, and as a prospective course text. With that in mind, I will offer a serialized preliminary evaluation, starting with the Introduction and first essay.

The Introduction by the editors cites the “long but often marginal history at the periphery of scholarly and intellectual worlds” of comics studies, but reports that in recent years it has become “a lively field of inquiry.” The growth in scholarly writing and publications on comics, the explosion of reprint projects, the formation of substantial research archives, and a general awareness of comics in the culture at large, the editors assert, have all “helped to legitimize comics studies.” Oddly, there is no specific mention of the onslaught of blockbuster films based on comic book properties, the most obvious cultural trend accompanying the social climb of comics studies over the past two decades. In this period in particular, the editors claim, comics scholars have “had the advantage of greater resources, numbers, and academic respectability” than that enjoyed by the pioneering generation of comics scholars of the 1960s and 1970s.

The editors are cautious in their triumphalism, however. “The emergence of a research-driven scholarly corpus … is a relatively recent occurrence,” they note, but “the energy and ferment of contemporary writing on comics” presents “an ideal moment to step back and survey the terrain.” They hope that their interdisciplinary anthology of “twenty-eight noteworthy contributions” will serve “as a starting point for defining comics studies as well as a springboard for further investigation.” The editors pause only briefly to cast an envious eye toward film, which they remark is “a younger art form” than comics (a debatable assertion) with a comparatively “larger, more systematic, and more culturally respectable” literature.

The first text in their anthology is entitled “Why Are Comics Still in Search of Cultural Legitimization?” by Thierry Groensteen. Given the generally upbeat tenor of the Introduction, it is a puzzling choice to lead off such an anthology of comics studies, since it contravenes nearly every assertion the editors have just made. Written in 2000, and therefore prior the presumed scholarly and artistic achievements of the subsequent decade, Groensteen complains that comics still “suffer from a considerable lack of legitimacy.” While he avers that what he is describing may be unique to France and not necessarily applicable to “other national situations,” he claims that comics are regarded as “infantile, vulgar, or insignificant” by “legitimizing authorities (universities, museums, the media)” in the Francophone world. In Groensteen’s view, comics history is still “widely misunderstood,” its study “retarded” due to “a complete absence of critical, archivistic, and academic attention.” A chief source of official opprobrium are educators, who view the medium as childish, in particular the curious mixture of word and pictures that achieves its apotheosis in the word balloon.

To illustrate what Groensteen perceives as the unfair persecution of comics, he quotes from a 1964 French dictionary, an art historian, a novelist, and a former curator of prints at the Bibliothèque Nationale, among a few other select publications, averaging only one quotation per decade from the 1950s to the 1990s. However, these ostensible condemnations of comics are often more insightful than the author’s own remarks on the medium, which tend toward the cliché, the trite, and the shopworn. For example, the curator attributes comics’ failure to achieve a sufficient literary and artistic density that would merit serious attention to the hybridity of the form itself, and to the overriding imperative for legibility that induces creators to simplify their material and presentation at all costs or else risk the confusion and alienation of potential readers. To this practicing cartoonist, at least, this strikes me as a fascinating and perfectly apt observation.

But rather than a productive engagement with this remark, Groensteen declares it “difficult to refute,” owing to the different aesthetic criteria applicable to cartoon drawings and “art drawings,” and moves on. Similarly, he scoffs at “great French writers” in scare quotes, but declines to engage in the fairly thoughtful observation of one novelist who observes that the blending of words and pictures is fraught with the prospect of the two channels canceling one another out, confounding the average adult literate mind. Rather than inquiring as to why this should be the case, Groensteen insists that comic book readers, and perhaps other world cultures, don’t seem to have this particular problem. The upshot is that critics of comics are stuffy, hidebound, and not hip to the at once vernacular and avant-garde form represented by comics. Needless to say, this argument would be more convincing if large numbers of people were making similar statements in 2000, at the time Groensteen is writing; the fact that he must survey half a century or more to locate a handful of benign dismissals makes one question what is really bothering the author, and why the editors find this issue so urgent as to place it at the beginning of their anthology.

Further, it is by no means clear, either in the editors’ Introduction or Groensteen’s text, what constitutes cultural legitimation, or for whom the legitimation is being sought: comics creators or comics scholars. More to the point, it is unclear how either the enjoyment of comics or their scholarly study has been hampered by this perceived lack, or how something described as cultural legitimacy would be of material benefit to creators or scholars. Apparently, some art forms enjoy cultural legitimacy as if by nature, and it is felt that comics deserve the same respect. Clearly, it pains Groensteen that the work of cartoonists like Hergé, Crumb, and Moebius do not enjoy “a wider diffusion” and appreciation, and that the keepers of official culture cannot discern this work from the run of average material. But it seems unlikely that these creators in particular, who enjoyed enormous success and near-celebrity status during their careers, were ever particularly harmed by never having been accorded cultural legitimacy. Indeed, Groensteen never makes this assertion, adding to the suspicion that the only legitimacy he is concerned with is his own. Had these creators desired cultural legitimacy, whatever that entails, they certainly had the talent to pursue other avenues to achieve that end. Rather, it seems that the imagined plight of cartoonists is invoked only as a proxy for and to be conflated with the social and academic anxieties of comics scholars, the gains set forth in the Introduction notwithstandinge.

Whether poorly written, poorly translated, or poorly excerpted, Groensteen’s text is unconvincing, and reads as if he is merely preaching to the converted. Against the paltry and rather benign (and perhaps even constructive) criticisms he has dredged up, Groensteen offers no serious argumentation, but provides the usual litany of bland generalizations. Critics of comics, he asserts, unfairly tar the medium with the brush of childhood entertainment, and, imbued with modernism’s mandate for specificity, simply fail to understand the unique hybridity of the comics form. Never mind that Groensteen ends the article by laying claim to his inner child (although he does not employ that term), or that he makes the completely modernist assertion that “Comic art is an autonomous and original medium,” i.e., that comics can pass the same modernist test of specificity he has just denounced. In short, one gets the impression not so much of a widespread, culturally-ingrained discrimination towards comics as a comic book fan with a persecution complex looking to manufacture rejection from the most obscure and forgotten denunciations he can cobble together.

In any case it is abundantly clear from the positioning of Groensteen’s text immediately following the Introduction that cultural legitimation is a preoccupation of comics scholars or at least the editors of A Comics Studies Reader, the attainment of which is seen as a primary goal of comics studies. “How are we to defend comic art,” Groensteen pleads, from those who would rashly disqualify it as an art? One strategy, one is tempted to respond, might be to simply ignore or forget the scattered denunciations that Groensteen has labored so mightily to unearth. Better still, to seriously address the sticking points that these critics have so helpfully pointed out, rather than to petulantly dismiss them.

For all I know, Groensteen’s is an apt summation of the situation in France at the end of the 1990s (and as far as that goes, belies the cherished myth Americans have that comics are taken more seriously in Europe), but devoting eight pages of precious space to these neurotic musings in an English-language anthology in 2009 is more than questionable and worse than unfortunate. Certainly, the critical reception of comics over time is of historiographic interest, but Groensteen’s text is not presented historiographically, but rather as if still reflecting current concerns in the field. If the intent was rhetorical, to show that as recently as a decade earlier scholars were still ruminating about cultural legitimacy but now things look brighter, this might have been dealt with more efficiently in a citation in the editors’ Introduction, before reporting on the substantial gains in the fortunes of comics and comics scholarship in the interim. More to the point, I know of no scholarly field that foregrounds the question cultural legitimacy of its objects of study to such an extent as comics studies. Of course, scholarly activism in nothing new in the humanities, but it is generally on behalf of some social cause, political issue, or exploited group, never an art form. The appeal being made on behalf of comics is not being made on behalf of any ethnic, gender, or identity group, but rather an expressive form, which, by the editors’ own account, is finally receiving its due. Besides, most scholars assume that their objects of scholarly study are worth scholarly attention by virtue of the fact that they are bothering to study it, at the very least that cultural legitimacy is bestowed by their act of investigation. Why isn’t this the case in comics?

From the viewpoint of tradition, the anxieties expressed by Groensteen and the editors concerning the cultural legitimacy of comics are little more than the continuation of an entrenched tradition in comics scholarship: comics studies as the academic expression of comics fans seeking validation for their juvenile enthusiasms, avid enthusiasts who have never gotten over some early rejection by relatives or some potential object of affection, even years after they have made a success of it. By including Groensteen’s text, however, the editors have elevated their deep-seated anxieties concerning the cultural legitimacy of comics or comics studies to the level of a social cause, risking ridicule for the entire field, and worse, perpetuating the worst tendencies of twentieth-century fandom into the twenty-first century. While not completely ruling out the use of A Comics Studies Reader for classroom use, the inclusion of “Why Are Comics Still in Search of Cultural Legitimization?” should give any comics scholar or educator pause. Why indeed. Do we really want to visit the neuroses and prejudices of the past on the college students of today, who see only an artistically viable and valid art form, capable of great depth and range of expression? Perhaps if comics and comics studies acted as if they already had cultural legitimacy, they would find it.


  1. The Groensteen's article left you dubitative, Donald. I have not read it and it's not easy to explain something with my bad english, but, maybe I can bring some lights. This article seems like an outline of a book Groensteen wrote in 2006, "Un objet culturel non identifié" (an unindentified cultural object — looks like an U.F.O., same pun in french). A very original essay about the bande dessinée because nobody else than Groensteen could have written it : the arguments came from Groensteen personal life, and he's a specialist of comics who tries to legitimate comics in the intellectual world since thirty years. He is certainly the one who succeeded the most to do that in France. He directed the main review of study ("Les Cahiers de la bande dessinée", the equivalent of "Les Cahiers du cinéma" for comics), the first real museum (in Angoulême), he organized a huge exhibition in the Bibliothèque nationale, defended an university thesis (later published by Les Presses universitaires de France), he taught comics to students, wrote critics in "Le Monde" (the most serious daily newspaper)... If someone in France can say the commonplace "in the past, comics were scorned by the intelligentsia but today things have changed", it's him, and it would be a way to autocongratulate what he did. Yet, in his book (I don't know in the article), he does the opposite. His report is not enthousiastic. He gives examples, taken from its own life, that even if the bande dessinée is now in museums and universities, it is considered with condescension, it is still considered as a frivolous subject. Again, I don't know if his article is "whether poorly written" (this, I doubt), "poorly translated, or poorly excerpted", but what Groensteen says is very clear and convincing in his book. I hope the summary of one may clear up the other...

  2. Yes, perhaps I'm being a bit unfair to Monsieur Groensteen. As I wrote, for all I know his remarks vis a vis France may have been apropos in 2000. However, it is incumbent upon the editors of an English-language text purportedly for classroom use to provide the proper context, and that is not given in this case. From what I understand, France has a much more entrenched, rigid, and bureaucratic cultural administration, whereas the U.S. has no state apparatus legitimating culture whatsoever, so for us it is a question largely of taking ourselves seriously rather than one of convincing legitimating authorities, in my view. In the humanities, everyone is condescending about everyone else's research area anyway; one needs to have thick skin.