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Comics Scholarship 2.0 by Ernesto Priego

03 Jun

At the cusp of second decade of the 21st century, if the word “webcomics” still sounds strange to some, it is clear the reason is not the prefix web. It is the word “comics” that is problematic for several reasons. In spite of their ubiquity in the mainstream cultural landscape, comic books are still the object of a widespread prejudice that has two main expressions. One is the debatable disqualification of any texts addressed or appealing to children as lacking “seriousness”. The “infancy/maturity” binary set is a recurring topos of comics scholarship, explained amongst other reasons by the field’s struggle to convince the general public that “comics are not just for kids”. Echoing Bart Beaty’s assessment of “contemporary comics scholarship” (2004) , Craig Hight writes:

Although comics are a medium as rich and complex as any other, the study of comic forms is a comparatively neglected field within media studies, with attempts to identify the defining characteristics of comic narratives and aesthetics still in their infancy. A key reason for this academic neglect lies in the dominance of superhero narratives within the comic market, and the consequent assumption that comics are ‘just for kids’ (Hight 2007:181).

While it can be agreed that the dominance of American superhero comics has had an overall negative effect on the cultural perception of comics on the general public, the reasons for their academic neglect are more profound than that; being traceable, at least within literary studies, to the Greek preference for diegesis over mimesis, and for the written word over the graphic image. Moreover, in days in which most mainstream book shops in global metropoles have fixed shelves dedicated to graphic novels for adults, perhaps comics scholarship should also advocate for the scholarly study of children’s and young persons’ literature. A focus on graphic storytelling made outside the U.S. would also seem urgent if the diverse complexity of the comics medium is to be promoted.

The second expression of an anti-comics prejudice is a pervasive iconophobia that still has very actual manifestations today (Mitchell 2005). The opposition of the written word to the graphic image runs deep in mainstream culture and in academia as well. This makes concentrating on a recent visual and multimedia formulation such as digital and web comics even more problematic. Comic books, when considered from a point of view situated outside the specialised havens of comics scholarship (Varnum and Gibbons 2005; Heer and Worcester 2009) and fandom studies, (Brown, 1997; Hellekson and Busse 2006) are still largely ignored, rejected or denied the respectability of other art forms, often of younger lineage than comics. Therefore, as every student of comics knows, the history of comic books has also been the history of a negation and a corresponding strife for integration into the cultural matrix. Their acceptance as a legitimate art form and legit subject of academic study is only a recent phenomenon. In general, the separation of art forms between “highbrow” and “low brow” was a consequence of the negative reception of mass media and culture in the 1950s and dominating structuralist and semiotic trends that created hierarchical taxonomies of cultural production (Groensteen 2000; 2009:4).

And even though it remains a truism that comics are a “misunderstood art form”, the phrase has become a commonplace most comics scholars are now trying to leave behind.[1] Furthermore, other sets of prejudices, like the ones opposing academic rigour and pleasure, theory and practice, and seriousness and humour amongst several others, do represent obstacles for the early career scholar interested in comics. For the comics scholar one of the challenges is establishing a critical distance from the object of study, but it cannot be denied, as Hellekson and Busse (2006) discuss in the introduction to their Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, that often the academic study of popular culture shares productive and creative spaces with fan culture and is the result of what they call “the meeting of two worlds” (2006:1). Nevertheless, it can be said the serious critical inquiry of cultural products requires both a passionate approach to the subject matter and an almost heartless, cold-blooded ability to dissect it. As Beaty (2004) has pointed out, comics, as “a maligned and ignored medium of communication” tends to be “bolstered by those that are interested in the form” (2004:4).[2] In reaction to this widespread tendency Beaty argues that, if comics studies are to be taken seriously as a scholarly field, “the medium [of comics] needs to be promoted by its detractors” (2004:5). According to Beaty, instead of the mere “celebration,” of the form, what would make comics scholarship reach maturity would be proper scholarly inquiry, in other words “to bring to light submerged insights into culture generally that the specific form of comics illuminate” (2004:5-6). I am sure that this edition of the Leeds Comics Forum, like other academic conferences in the UK and other countries, aspires to contribute to such scholarly maturity without the need to pretend there is detraction instead of critical passion.

The days in which most energy and word counts were spent trying to convince peers and the public that comic book culture deserved serious scholarly attention are finally coming to an end. in In the very near future, only those trapped in the blindest ignorance can deny the place that the study of comics deserves within higher education. This is thanks in part to the increasing amount of quality comics and comics scholarship being consistently published and disseminated in different forms through different channels, both traditional and “alternative”, partly because we live times in which instant digital communication and transmediality, as both tangible and intangible phenomena, have helped towards the pragmatic deconstruction of the binary oppositions that rejected popular culture as unworthy. The growing number of students and early career scholars working specifically on comics and the greater awareness of the relevance of comics studies for other academic areas has raised the alarm of the scarcity and general lack of good practice in the collection, archiving, preservation and accessibility of primary and secondary sources. This collective realisation (largely taken for granted in the past) will hopefully increase their systematic presence in university libraries and their inclusion in digital resources for humanities research.

The overwhelming effects of digital culture on everyday life have forced most of us to interrogate the significance of the materiality and media-specificity of cultural products. Comics Scholarship 2.0, if we could call it like that, cannot deny the importance of both digital and analogue tools and discourses useful for or employed in the creation, distribution, reception, preservation and scholarly interpretation of comics. The comics scholarship of the early 21st century is beginning to produce an integrated, critical analysis of comics in various print and digital formats with an international and holistic approach (Berninger et al, 2010 amongst others). This collective academic work will not only be of interest to comics scholars: it can illuminate and challenge commonly accepted assumptions about all sorts of “content” in a digital age.

Bibliography

Beaty, B. (2004) “Review Essay: Assessing Contemporary Comics Scholarship.” Canadian Journal of Communication, Vol 29, No 3 http://www.cjc-online.ca/index.php/journal/article/viewArticle/1485/1603 [10/07/09]

Berninger, M., Ecke, J. and Haberkorn, G. (2010) (eds.) Comics as a Nexus of Cultures: Essays on the Interplay of Media, Disciplines and International Perspectives. Jefferson and London: McFarland & Co.

Brown, J. A. (1997). ‘Comic Book Fandom and Cultural Capital.’ Journal of Popular Culture 30.4 (Spring): 13-31.

Coppa, F. (2006). ‘A Brief History of Media Fandom’, in Hellekson, K. and Busse, K., Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, 41-59. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company

Groensteen, T. (2009) [2000]. ‘Why Are Comics Still in Search of Cultural Legitimization?’ in Heer, J. and Worcester, K. (2009) A Comics Studies Reader. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press.

Groensteen, T. (2007) The System of Comics. Jackson: The University of Mississippi Press.

Heer, J. and Worcester, K. (2009) (eds.) A Comics Studies Reader. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press.

Hight, C. (2007). ‘American Splendor: Translating Comic Autobiography into Drama-Documentary’ in Gordon, I., Jancovich, M., and McAllister, M.P. (eds.) Film and Comic Books. 180-198. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press.

Mitchell, W.J.T. (2005). What Do Pictures Want? The Life and Loves of Images. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Varnum, R. and Gibbons, C.T. (2001) (eds.) The Language of Comics. Word and Image. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Dr Ernesto Priego is interested in the convergences between comics scholarship, digital humanities, Latin American studies, media studies, digital engagement, citizen journalism and poetry. A HASTAC Scholar and a bilingual correspondent for 4Humanities (University of Alberta), he’s been writing and teaching about comics since 1994. He lives in London and is a founding member and co-editor of The Comics Grid.

[1] – One of the conclusions of the 14th April plenary session of the Graphic Novels & Comics Conference 2010 in Manchester Metropolitan University was indeed that it was urgent comics scholarship stopped mentioning again and again how comics was a “misunderstood” art form.

[2] – As Beaty also notices, Varnum and Gibbons, in their editorial introduction to The Language of Comics (2001), state: “Taken together, all these essays celebrate comics.” (2001:xviii).

 
 

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