Review: 'The Rise of the American Comics Artist' falls short of its panelologists' lofty ambitions
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In the 1960s and 1970s they called themselves panelologists, those comics fans who aspired to higher intellectual ambitions, the sorts of readers who aspired to move beyond talking about how this character or that character was so cool or interesting but rather to delve into a deeper analysis of the successes or failures of an item being read, in order to help pull apart how and why it worked, and to determine its intellectual underpinnings. Creating insightful essays in fanzines like Graphic Story Magazine and Gary Groth’s early Fantastic Fanzine, these writers aspired to separate the wheat from the multitudinous chaff in that era, to find the few stories that were worthy of serious study in the midst of endless-seeming schlock that encompassed the medium at that time. It seemed the more intellectual study of the graphic story was an uphill battle in those days.

Though a few university professors swam against the tide and included comics in their literature classes (Dr. Donald Ault, an authority on the poetry of William Blake, included some Carl Barks Donald Duck stories in his curriculum at UC Berkeley), the idea of formally studying sequential art as a unique literary form was summarily dismissed by many in the academic community for many years. After all, comics were kid’s stuff, immature material produced by hacks catering to adolescents and those with mental or social disorders that kept them reading material that was below their intellectual capacity. Among the intelligentsia, this medium was purely for children and the woefully immature.

Until, that is, the first volume of Art Spiegelman’s Maus was first published in 1991.

Maus, from The Rise of the American Comic

As is discussed several times in The Rise of the American Comics Artist, an anthology of academic writing about comics aesthetics and history, Maus changed everything. In its serious and sober depiction of the Holocaust, Spiegelman surveyed a subject matter that demanded serious attention; and in its central metaphor of Nazis as cats and Jews as mice, it created a motif that merited close critical scrutiny and attention. These days, when excerpts from graphic novels by Spiegelman, Chris Ware, Alison Bechdel, Daniel Clowes and others are commonly included in college-level literary anthologies, it’s easy to forget that a mere quarter-century ago this medium was dismissed by the academy as mere kidstuff for geeks and dorks — and as one essayist reminds us in this book, some of the more elitist critics at universities still dismiss graphic literature as shallow despite all the ambitious works that have been created in recent years.

The Rise of the American Comics Artist shows a bias towards the sorts of graphical “literature” that academics enjoy dissecting. Maus and Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan are the subject of multiple pieces; Joe Sacco’s reportage, a fascinating topic for academic discourse of both literature and journalism, gets close scrutiny; and there’s a treatment of gender and Latino issues in Love & Rockets that might be revelatory for those who have never read the work of Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez but seems rather shallow for those of us who have been reading them forever. In a “publish or perish” tome like this one, these sorts of articles are logical and understandable but there is a lot of repetition and a focus on a certain narrow band of material.

That said, there are topics covered here that receive less critical attention than others:

  • Graham Murphy delivers a thoughtful look at an arc of Freedom Fighters that considers what it means to be a patriot in the modern era.
  • James Lyons struggles with the way that Shannon Wheeler’s rebellious stories are used to advertise Converse shoes, presenting a clear dichotomy between the attempt to both decommodify one’s work and embrace commodification – maybe an inevitable problem in early 21st century America.
  • Paul Williams delves into what it means to create “contemporary women’s comics” with insight and a smart nod to the past.

But this is also an odd collection of essays. Three of the thirteen pieces included here discuss the art of Chris Ware, implying that perhaps it might have been better for editors Williams and Lyons to release an anthology that only contained papers on Ware’s oeuvre. And while these are all interesting analyses –Williams’s piece on racism in Jimmy Corrigan and how tha­t motif relates to a consideration of that book as the Great American Novel is especially intriguing – they also feel repetitious and unnecessary.

Comics by Chris Ware

Oddly for a collection of material nominally devoted to the rise of the American comic artists, two essays here survey the influence of British creators on the medium, delving deep into attitudes and approaches that those creators brought to the material they cover. It’s a topic well worth exploring, but not one that readers might expect in a book that has this scope.

The most striking think about reading Rise is that though it was published in 2010, it feels surprisingly dated. There’s no discussion in the chapter about Joe Sacco of his magnificent Footnotes in Gaza, for instance, and this book is strangely biased towards the world of print graphic novels published by major publishers rather than the small press and digital material that frequently does a more interesting job of exploring the boundaries of comic art. In an odd way, this year’s Year’s Best Comics volume provides much more insight into the boundaries of comic art at this point in time because there has been such an explosion of complex, interesting graphic literature in the last half-decade or more.

Joe Sacco's comics journalism

Perhaps most tellingly, the most perceptive thoughts here come not from the essayists but from the creators who are interviewed. Jim Woodring separates the academic from the prosaic by talking about how it’s almost impossible for a cartoonist to make a living doing comic art, talking about how he barely gets by financially. Jeff Smith also adds an astute commentary on how he emerged as a trailblazer of the self-publishin
g movement, and Scott McCloud (inevitably) reflects on his Understanding Comics after a decade of its use in schools. Free from the jargon and complex syntax of some of the essays that accompany them, the interviews feel like straightforward bursts of fresh air.

Though I have a number of complaints, Rise is worth a read by anybody who’s interested in a deeper exploration of comics as an artform. There are some fascinating pieces here – the discussion of sexuality in Hothead Paisan made me want to seek out Diane DiMassa’s books – and I’ll now reread Chris Ware’s work with deeper insight. But it doesn’t quite achieve the goals of its latter day panelologists. The Rise of the American Comics Artist falls short of its lofty ambitions.

 




Starting in the mid-1980s, a talented set of comics artists changed the American comic-book industry forever by introducing adult sensibilities and aesthetic considerations into popular genres such as superhero comics and the newspaper strip. Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen (1987) revolutionized the former genre in particular. During this same period, underground and alternative genres began to garner critical acclaim and media attention beyond comics-specific outlets, as best represented by Art Spiegelman's Maus. Publishers began to collect, bind, and market comics as "graphic novels," and these appeared in mainstream bookstores and in magazine reviews.

The Rise of the American Comics Artist: Creators and Contexts brings together new scholarship surveying the production, distribution and reception of American comics from this pivotal decade to the present. The collection specifically explores the figure of the comics creator--either as writer, as artist, or as writer and artist--in contemporary U.S. comics, using creators as focal points to evaluate changes to the industry, its aesthetics, and its critical reception. The book also includes essays on landmark creators such as Joe Sacco, Art Spiegelman, and Chris Ware, as well as insightful interviews with Jeff Smith (Bone), Jim Woodring (Frank) and Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics). As comics have reached new audiences, through different material and electronic forms, the public's broad perception of what comics are has changed. The Rise of the American Comics Artist surveys the ways in which the figure of the creator has been at the heart of these evolutions.

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