Review: 'The Rise of the American Comics Artist' falls short of its panelologists' lofty ambitionsA comic review article by: Jason Sacks
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.
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.
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.
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-publishing 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.