Loaded with full-color reproductions of work by such legends as R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel, Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes, and Lynda Barry, the book addresses the place of comics in both a contemporary and historical context. Essays by such high-profile figures as Tom Gunning, N. Katherine Hayles, Patrick Jagoda, and W. J. T. Mitchell address a stunning range of topics, including the place of comics in the history of aesthetics, changes to popular art forms, digital humanities, and ongoing tensions between new and old media. The result is a substantial step forward for our understanding of what comics are and can be, and the growing place they hold in our culture.
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Critical Inquiry vol 40 no 3 (Spring 2014)
By Hillary Chute, Patrick Jagoda
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Public Conversation: What the %$#! Happened to Comics?
May 19, 2012
W.J.T. Mitchell and Art Spiegelman
Art Spiegelman: This was going to be a talk by me but I was too daunted by the audience of fifteen or sixteen peers who were billed as being here with me. So I couldn't make myself deliver something that's called a keynote address. And it seemed better to me to be interviewed at a university like this by one of its leading scholars, because that way I get to be the wise guy instead of the stuffy scholar in the room.
W.J.T. Mitchell: Thanks, Art. I see now what my role is going to be.
Spiegelman: Sorry, but you have to play your part.
Mitchell: So this conversation is in place of a keynote address on the topic of Comics: Philosophy and Practice. We might want to begin by asking this general question throughout: is there a philosophy of and in comics? Can comics engage in philosophical discourse? We know they can tell stories and record events. But can they philosophize? I firmly believe they can, if only in their unrivalled capacity to reflect on their own status as an infinitely flexible medium that combines words and images, stories and bodies, thoughts and actions, subjective and objective experience. In fact everything I call philosophy is rooted in my miseducation in reading comic books. Certainly the idea of picturing theory comes to me directly out of comic books. Where else can you see a thought hovering over the head of a thinker? Where else can you draw an imaginary door on a wall and then walk through it?
Art and I have been talking compulsively on the telephone over the last few days about the topics we would take up here today, and we have come up with a few general thoughts or what in the academy we call "naïve questions." We might think of them as addressed to the entire group of artists assembled here. First, I would like Art to address the downside—let's call it the curse—of comics. We see from Art's first image (fig. 1) that the very being of comics, what a philosopher would call its "ontological status," seems naturally to be uttered as a curse. As if one could not just say, "What is comics?" but was compelled to ask, "WTF is comics?" Is there a curse of some kind hovering over comics? Is it their notoriously low cultural status? Or is there a more profound curse involved in the fact that comics are becoming an academic subject?
My second naïve question is simply a request for Art to reflect on drawing, writing, and lines on paper, and particularly this mysterious process, of making a mark—the interplay of the hand, the instrument, and what appears on the page.
Our third question concerns the relationship between stereotype and caricature ... what are they? Are they the same thing? Are they essential to the comics medium, or just one option among others?
It also seemed important as a general question to consider the future of comics. There is of course this enormous past history of comics and its artistic precedents, stretching back through illuminated manuscripts, hieroglyphics, and cave painting. But this conference might be a moment for thinking about the future of this medium. It has evolved into something whose potential nobody knows. What happens when comics become wall art? Stained glass? When comics move into the museum? Or into the movies, where they have been since the beginning, but now seem to have a new relation to cinema. Should we think of the move to the museum as parallel to the question of the curse of comics, in the sense that sometimes getting put up on the wall in a museum is a way of being hung that is not necessarily a blessing.
Spiegelman: The curse of comics as the lowest art is basically why I became a cartoonist. If the world we exist in today is the one I fell into, I would never have gone into this racket. I didn't want to be a writer, and I didn't want to be a painter. And the fact that you could fly below the radar and be left alone was an important aspect of being a cartoonist for me. At least that was the case when I started. Among my many illustrious achievements nobody has yet mentioned the Garbage Pail Kids and the Wacky Packages that I cut my teeth working on. I was working in the grand old tradition of turning a buck with your pictures, getting people to come into the tent.
Mitchell: Is that why you made pictures like this (fig. 3)?
Spiegelman: In the 1970s I was reading Marshall McLuhan. He pointed out that when something is no longer a mass medium, it has to become art or it dies. And I was realizing comics even in the 1970s were beginning to wane from their glory years—when they were truly a mass, mass medium. And I thought of it very literally as a Faustian deal that had to be made with the culture, and it was a fraught one and a dangerous one, a danger which a lot of your questions and topics point to: what is this museum thing, what is this academicizing? And I figured it was necessary for comics to find their way into libraries, book stores, universities, and museums, because otherwise there wouldn't be an apparatus that could sustain what had been sustained by Sunday newspapers and pamphlet comics and things like that in the later part of the century. It was a Faustian deal because the medium gets tainted by its aspirations toward legitimacy, and I was part of the taint; I was part of creating the problem at a certain point. This image was made as a lithograph when I finally had gotten a grant to do something. I used to apply for grants in New York City and they would always move me around from pictures to words to finally mixed media where I'd lose out to Nam June Paik because he was also into words and pictures. Since they couldn't put me into either category, I had to be up against video artists.
The first comics were really born as a kind of extension of vaudeville. They were slapstick. These comics were disapproved of almost as soon as they were born because they were for the unwashed mass, the immigrant culture that was being acclimated to America, and reading the funnies wasn't what you should be doing on Sundays. (Were you supposed to be reading R. Crumb's Genesis or something? I don't know.) So the medium was born with a kind of unsavoriness. It was originally an unwanted byproduct of a printing process. Joseph Pulitzer wanted to bring art to the masses and he wanted to print the world's great art and spent a lot of money making the color press to make it possible. And fortunately, for the degenerates amongst us here, it didn't work. It couldn't be done. The printing wasn't good enough to print the Mona Lisa. It was fine for art with off-register color, and that meant the Sunday supplements got born the way we know them. It was a perversion of the original intent to uplift. Almost immediately this tug of war began. Some newspapers resisted having comics because they were so vulgar. This tug of war is one of the better things that happens in America: we're an anxiety-ridden culture, feeling we should be more cultured. It creates a tug of war between the vulgar and genteel that leads to fruitful results. The vital whorehouse jazz inspires Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, and both are worth keeping.
Mitchell: You said you fell into this. It was a kind of curse. Or at least it was your fate. This reminds me of a line by Alexander Pope, the great eighteenth century poet. He asked the question, "Why did I write? What sin to me unknown dipped me in ink, my parents, or my own?" So here is a classical poet and he also regarded it as a kind of curse. He said it must be original sin that led me into this. Could the curse of comics reveal something about human nature and art itself? Do we have an original sin that requires us to fall into an artform like this?
Spiegelman: Well, Pope was a goy. So this original sin stuff is not for me. [laughter] Unoriginal sins. The act of repetition and copying of other cartoonists—that is plenty of sin for us.
The fact is that ultimately the sin is this co-mixing of words and pictures, so of course you get doubly cursed. If Pope was a sinner, presumably Michelangelo was also at least gay and thus probably a sinner. [laughter] And here [in comics] you double up on the sinning because you have to work between these two zones—without the distinction of having the Pope as your patron, but having instead basically the unwashed and kids as your audience. But all mass mediums are seen as sins because basically we live in a world where if children like something, adults get very frightened, and try to control it. [Fredric Wertham's 1954] Seduction of the Innocent was a book I found in the library, early on; it was responsible for these comic book burnings. I found it a very useful book because I knew what comic books to buy on the basis of the index in the back. [laughter] I realized that when we talk about this shifting moment that we've gotten into today, part of it is because when they were burning those comic books they saw comics as the antithesis to literacy.
Mitchell: Your mention of the index reminds me of the way the Roman Catholic Index of Forbidden Books provided a quick guide to desirable reading when I was a kid. One of the things I always loved about comics, and especially Mad Magazine, was that it was a kind of guilty pleasure. I once took my son when he was thirteen years old to the offices of Mad Magazine, and the editors there said to him, well, kid, if you are a subscriber to our magazine, either that means you are really, really precocious and smart, or you are really sick and perverted. (I think his response was, "Wow! You guys are really cool.") And for us it didn't matter; maybe being smart and being a little perverted felt like one thing. Hiding your comic book inside your textbook gave you the double pleasure of being smart and an outlaw at the same time. What does it mean now when you don't have to hide it anymore and it is not a guilty pleasure? Are we going to have guilt-free comics? Is that a good thing?
Spiegelman: That sounds awful to me. I remember my friend Jay Lynch, an underground cartoonist, used to hide copies of Playboy inside his Mad Magazine. [laughter] Then he reached an age where he had to flip it around. [laughter]
But Mad was an important inspiration. I don't know if it was a guilty pleasure. There was an essay by Robert Warshow admitting he was abashed at his interest in Mad. For me, Mad was the Codex. It was what ruined my life. Gave me that original sin, or whatever you call it. It was where I discovered everything. I discovered the parody way before I knew what the original was. Had to work my way backwards figuring it out. One of the main things I was thinking about recently is that one of the important things about Mad was "the chicken fat" as Will Elder called it.
Mitchell: What is chicken fat?
Spiegelman: Chicken fat is the guilty pleasure. It is the thing that will cause cardiac arrest eventually. It is that ladling onto an image all those extra images that slow it down. So you have to give the picture a lot of time. Even though we use the word "read comics" more than "look at comics," basically what Mad insisted on was that, like a Hogarth picture, you would have to reenter deeply and decode all of the little background stuff. It's a lot of images to decode. When you get really close up, even that border that was part of the original Mad—when you look really closely at the border, it was like a month's worth of reading right there. It had a banner that said "literature" and the medallion above shows a crossword puzzle—an emblem that explains comics as the essence of literature, moving your eye up and down as well as left to right to search for meaning. "Art" shows calendar pin-up art. Then right below, there's something that said "medicine"—a high stack of coins and dollar bills was the picture. [laughter] And the letters themselves had, like, centaurs and maidens cavorting through them. It was a highly dense kind of picture making. Insofar as I'm partially responsible, having been called—God knows why—the father of the graphic novel (I have been demanding the blood test ever since)— I trace it all back to my Mad lessons.
Mitchell: You don't like the phrase "graphic novel"?
Spiegelman: I don't like the phrase. It existed as one of the euphemisms that people have used to say that comics are not a guilty pleasure. Graphics: sort of respectable. Novel: since the nineteenth century, very respectable. So graphic novels are doubly respectable. When I was growing up you couldn't say you were a cartoonist because it is like saying, how do you do? I'm a case of arrested development. And now being a "graphic novelist" has a certain caché.
Mitchell: So what's not to like?
Spiegelman: The danger is that it gets arid and genteel. The Faustian deal is worth making; it keeps my book in print. But it is important to have work that isn't easy to assimilate on that level.
The nature of Mad was to give you a lot to chew on. In Portrait of the Artist as A Young Blankety-Blank [I have a panel that says]: "I studied Mad the way some kids studied the Talmud ..." ([aside:] "Goddamn furshlugginer kid.") But look at the Mad comic book cover. It is very avant-garde, filled with chicken fat. And capable of mixing drawing and photography in a completely new way, so that a photograph of roof tops and water towers collaged with a gargoyle monster drawn by Basil Wolverton can be called "The Beautiful Girl of the Month." And the whole cover is designed to look like a Life Magazine cover—at the time Life was the flag of middlebrow respectability. Mad allowed you to see that there is something unsavory in the squeaky clean monolithic culture of Disney in the 1950s. [In the Harvey Kurtzman and Will Elder story "Mickey Rodent," the main character is] a rodent. He has rat traps attached to his fingers. He is unshaven. The Disney police are dragging him off because he's not wearing his white gloves. Everything, even the style of drawing, is called into question.
Mitchell: Since you brought up drawing, let's turn to that question. It has always struck me that especially in this so called digital age, the idea of handmade, hand-drawn lines of paper can seem old-fashioned. And yet the handmade character of comics seems so essential to the many of the most innovative comic artists today, including many of those gathered here. And I also wondered if you could reflect on the pun that is built into the word "drawing" itself, a pun that may be relevant to our discussion. And that's the idea of drawing as pulling or being attracted to, being drawn towards something. The ancient myth about the birth of drawing was that its invention was motivated by love and desire. This was a very popular motif for artists in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and it always involved the same scene. The lover is leaving, so the young woman, the maid of Corinth, sketches the silhouette of her lover on the wall. This is the Greek version of the origin of drawing. It starts with love, or maybe lust. Do you think drawing has anything to do with desire? With lust? With the wish to bring something into the world that doesn't exist?
Spiegelman: Many cartoonists were misguided. We thought our drawings would bring women into our lives. A lot of cartoonists have the experience of drawing sexual pictures. I was feeling guilty enough to always draw the naked woman's torso and then turn it into a dog's head where the tits would become eyes. So if anybody discovered the drawing before it was finished, I could just play innocent and say "Oh, is that what you thought I was drawing?"
Mitchell: The Greek myth about the birth of drawing reverses the gender roles, as you can see, and makes drawing a feminine invention. The young woman is sketching the silhouette of her young lover, about to leave, probably never to return. And Cupid is holding her arm, guiding her hand. She's using Cupid's arrow to etch out the drawing. With his other hand, Cupid is holding up the torch to make the shadow to be sketched.
Spiegelman: The other thing that's true about this picture is it is done at just about the right time to be part of the physiognomy adventure. [People] would trace silhouettes to study the sitter's character. One used the silhouetted, reduced version of the face. The idea was that the face was the reflection of the soul. So if you had a good sturdy profile, you were a good sturdy person. If you had a swinish profile, you were a swine. And that image looks like exactly what [Johann Kaspar] Lavater was doing in his parlor with people coming by to visit.
Mitchell: But you start, I think, not with the silhouette or the profile, but with the doodle. Or as Chris Ware puts it—one of the themes of this conference is actually, "the empathetic doodle." A drawing which has something to do with empathy, sympathy, with reaching out to another soul. But it doesn't have, necessarily, an object, except for doodling itself. Here, for instance, is Hogarth's doodle, what he called "the line of beauty."
Excerpted from Critical Inquiry vol 40 no 3 (Spring 2014) by Hillary Chute, Patrick Jagoda. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Hillary Chute and Patrick Jagoda
Comics & Media
Car and Batman
W.J.T. Mitchell and Art Spiegelman
Public Conversation: What the %$ Happened to Comics?
The Art of Succession: Reading, Writing, and Watching Comics
Hillary Chute and Alison Bechdel
Bartheses: Barthesian Doubt Edition
Joe Sacco and W.J.T. Mitchell
Charlie Chaplin and His Shadows: On Laws of Fortuity in Art
My Life as a Cartoon
Phoebe Gloeckner, Justin Green, Aline Kominsky-Crumb, Carol Tyler
Panel: Comics and Autobiography
Moderated by Deborah Nelson
Sculpture, Stasis, the Comics, and Hellboy
Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Kristen Schilt
Of What Use Is an Old Bunch?
“This Is No Longer Dance”: Media Boundaries and the Politics of Choreography in The Steel Step
Charles Burns, Daniel Clowes, Seth, Chris Ware
Panel: Graphic Novel Forms Today
Moderated by Hillary Chute
A Language of Scratches and Stitches: The Graphic Novel between Hyperreading and Print
Arpía and Valiente
Françoise Mouly with Daniel Clowes, R. Crumb, Chris Ware
Talk on Blown Covers
Garland Martin Taylor
Out of Jest: The Art of Henry Jackson Lewis
Alison Bechdel and Hillary Chute
N. Katherine Hayles, Patrick Jagoda, and Patrick LeMieux
Speculation: Financial Games and Derivative Worlding in a Transmedia Era
Lynda Barry, Ivan Brunetti, R. Crumb, Gary Panter
Panel: Lines on Paper
Moderated by Hamza Walker
Comics as Media: Afterword
Foldout: Chris Ware, conference poster, “Comics: Philosophy and Practice,” May 2012
Foldout Seth, pages from George Sprott, 2009