Constructing a sociology of comics by Simon Locke

13 Jan

It’s amazing what re-branding can do. Once upon a time, ‘mass culture’ was beneath anyone’s interest, but nowadays ‘popular culture’ seems to have become everyone’s object of desire, to the point that academics snipe across disciplines to claim ownership rights. While humanities scholars insist on the validity of analysis of the cultural product (‘text’, in the broad sense) as an object in its own right, sociologists, at least so we are told, are equally insistent on the necessity to situate the text within its context of production and (if rather sotto voce) consumption.

But speaking as a sociologist, I find this rather odd. My interest in cultural analysis developed during the 1980s when, as I seem to recall, the groundbreaking shift occurred from the stultifying focus on production, hammered out on the anvil of structuralist marxism that beat the text into the mould of dominant ideology, towards an awareness of the importance of audiences as active constituters of cultural meaning. As it happens, an outstanding study to emerge from this shift was Martin Barker’s Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics (Barker, 1989), which still remains one of the most fully developed works of its kind and by virtue of this is impossible to position definitively as either cultural studies (in its humanities sense) or sociology. It is genuinely both at once. Especially notable is that Barker calls for an analysis of comics that would incorporate production, text and audience, within a coherent theoretical and methodological framework that resists ascribing determinative priority to any one aspect, but sees each as formed within constraints and enablements that dialogically inform.

Given this, it comes as something of a surprise to find that the first explicitly stated effort to define a sociology of comics (Brienza 2010) chooses to place emphasis on only one aspect – and it is that same old hoary figure, the production of culture, looming up again like a hydra sprouting yet another bug-eyed head. Now, it must be said that the need for a sociology of comics is well overdue, so plaudits should be extended in support of the effort. Nonetheless, to prioritise production seems a rather retrograde step and an unfortunate outcome of the aforementioned ‘culture wars’. It is certainly the case that the recent expansion of academic work in comics studies has shown a skew towards textual analysis (which is not to overlook some valuable, earlier ethnographies – Pustz 1999, Brown 2001), partly in the attempt to identify formal features of the medium that might then be taken to constitute a measure of comics (as) ‘art’ – and so provide some kind of yardstick for analysing (supposed) ‘single artistic visions’. I would agree that this concern ignores historical and socio-cultural context in defining what counts as both ‘comics’ and ‘art’; indeed, Barker (1989: 8) himself neatly encapsulated this point when he defined ‘a comic’ as “what has been produced under the definition of a ‘comic’”, although I would want immediately to add that there is a danger here of discounting cultural struggle over meaning, including not least the meaning of ‘art’. A strong case can be made that the current interest in defining comics has emerged out of just such a cultural struggle – a struggle that cannot be understood from a productionist perspective alone precisely because it involved developing an alternative basis of production that was itself informed by a specific set of cultural resources I call the rhetoric of art (Locke 2009). To understand this requires doing sociology that is also cultural studies (or cultural studies that is also sociology), at every level of production, distribution, creation, textual form(s), and reception by readers, who play a key role as critical commentators on those forms.

As it stands, the sociology of comics on offer from the productionist perspective builds in part from work inspired by Howard Becker’s seminal text, Art Worlds (Becker 2008). But this book, fascinating though it is, sits rather uncertainly in relation to Becker’s earlier studies of the labelling process inspired by symbolic interactionism. Despite its ostensible participant observational method, Art Worlds lacks clear analysis of any such comparable processes at work in the jazz milieu under study. Specifically, questions that might be asked such as, ‘How is this art world constituted as such through its members symbolic practices?’ and contrastively, ‘How is it labelled by non-members in other associated ‘worlds’ and with what consequences?’ are not given much consideration. Consequently, the relevance of such symbolic practices in actively contributing to the constitution of such matters as the occupational, legal, economic and techn(olog)ical workings of the jazz world are not analysed. But such questions are surely pertinent to fully understanding how the jazz world works – just as they are, arguably with even greater significance, in the case of comics. There is a certain irony here for, while the productionist view might rightly stress the social constitution of ‘art’, in also stressing the deterministic role of production it is in danger of forgetting one of the fundamental insights informing symbolic interactionism that ‘if people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences’ (the so-called Thomas theorem).

So, to the rhetoric of art, for as much as the romanticised image of the isolated visionary artist may be sociologically unrealistic, it is nonetheless one that has been real in its consequences within the comics industry as a resource of argumentation in defence of a form of comics production that has been significantly persuasive in shaping its recent history. To take but one example, the formation of Image Comics in 1992, in which at least some of the creators involved, in defence of their breakaway action, drew on the kind of criticism directed especially at Marvel and DC that the rhetoric of art had helped establish. Todd McFarlane, for example, in his editorial in Spawn 1, having criticised the Big Two for their neglect of creators, added, “I can draw cool characters, monsters, silent issues, wordy issues, as a matter of fact no issues if I don’t want to, and better than all that I don’t have to answer to anyone. Sound egotistical? Call it what you will. Doing what I want, when I want, where I want. I call it exciting as hell.” Consolidating this appeal to artistic freedom, Dave Sim, the then leading proponent of self-publishing and arch-critic of the prevailing system of ‘work-for-hire’, contributed the story to Spawn 10 that incorporated an image (pun intended) of hooded, drone-like creators chained apart from their caged creations themselves pleading for release to return to their makers. However far adrift from the romanticised, single-creator ideal the actual operations of the Image studios may have been – and, as McFarlane’s hiring of ‘fellow-traveller’ writers like Sim, Gaiman and Moore suggests, there are reasons for this which themselves are not necessarily purely productionist, but involve the politics of the ongoing cultural struggle – it nonetheless constituted an important resource of self-presentation and justification, if not also motivation, for the breakaway action taken. Thus, we cannot properly understand the establishment of Image nor its continuing commitment to, broadly speaking, alternative comics without some reference to the romantic ideal of the single-creator artist.

This ideal as a focus for representing an alternative system of production is relevant to understanding broader changes in the comics industry in response to the challenges it provoked, not least to the system of ‘work-for-hire’, which, while still prevalent, has been modified to accommodate the demands of the ‘auteur’. Creators may still sign over any rights to their creative output produced under contract, but at least they now sit in a more prominent position at the negotiating table. Thus, in respect of such features as occupation, law, organisational structure and market position – all, so it is said, ‘constraints’ of production – the precise extent to and manner in which they constitute ‘constraints’ is not simply given by some sense of objective presence. Rather, their presence as ‘constraints’ (or not) depends on how they are treated by participants.

To illustrate, one further example can be mentioned that of the law against horror comics that to the best of my knowledge is still in force in Britain, the Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act of 1955. This Act is a rather curious affair, because despite there having been a number of cases against comics in the decades since its inception, the Act itself does not seem to have been applied or enforced. Rather, cases against comics have been brought on the basis of obscenity, such as that against Gosh!, the comics shop in 1993. In this instance, a number of comics were seized by HM Customs and Excise on the grounds that they breached laws against the importation of obscene material despite the same comics having been imported elsewhere in the UK without being deemed illicit. Now, although I cannot testify with any certainty, nonetheless I feel confident in asserting that in the same shop at the same time the very same kinds of comics that were banned under the 1955 Act were openly on sale in the form of reprints of EC horror comics, which were published by Russ Cochrane throughout the 1990s. As Martin Barker (1984) has argued, EC comics were amongst the main focus of concern for the anti-comics campaigners in the 1950s that led up to the passing of the Act.

I wrote to my MP at the time to protest the Gosh! raid and received a reply from then Home Secretary, Kenneth Clarke (yes, the very same current Justice Secretary; did somebody mention horror?!) in which the 1955 Act was cited, even though it was not the relevant statute used to justify HMCE’s raid and was actually described by Clarke (1993) as having “fallen into disuse”. The case then is instructive in demonstrating that law is a malleable entity, open to differential interpretation in its mobilisation and application at at least three levels:

• HMCE officers from different branches evidently displayed differential interpretation of whether or not any laws had been breached at all since, apparently, the same comics seized from Gosh! were openly on sale in other parts of the UK without being deemed illegal.

• HMCE officers displayed interpretative application of the law in deciding which laws had been breached – obscenity, rather than ‘corruption of youth’ (the thrust of the 1955 Act) – and in deciding which comics were illegal by taking no action against the very horror comics banned by the 1955 Act.

• The Home Secretary (or his attendant Whitehall civil servants) displayed a different interpretative understanding to HMCE of which laws were relevant to the case, by citing CYP(HP) Act, even though – and even as he himself made clear – this Act was not mobilised by HMCE.

The interpretative work involved in applying law does not, of course, end at this point. If Gosh! had been in any position to have pursued the case to court, then we can imagine that the interpretative work would have continued there; that, of course, is precisely why we speak of legal argument. Laws and cases are always arguable and never clear cut – except when they are rhetorically (that is, argumentatively) represented as being such.

Argument – and therefore rhetoric, which is no more than the sum of interpretative work involved in formulating an argument – is ever-present at all levels of production, textual content and reception. Human social existence is symbolically mediated, including those forms of symbolic representation that are called ‘constraints’. Sociology, just like cultural studies so far as it is understood as concerned with ‘signifying practices’, should study such symbolic mediations. I view them through a rhetorical lens (in all ways that might be taken), but regardless there is little to be gained from academic in-fighting. There is a need for a sociology of comics and there is also a need for critical dialogue between sociological and humanities approaches to comics, but it is unhelpful to construct this through an over-simplified contrast between ‘production’ and ‘text’. Such exclusive branding may befit the competitive markets for cultural products, but the academic world should recognise such market behaviour for what it is – a socio-cultural construction. Make this your brand of choice!


Barker, M. (1984). A Haunt of Fears: The Strange History of the British Horror Comics Campaign. London: Pluto.

Barker, M. (1989). Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Becker, H. (2008). Art Worlds (25th Anniversary Edition). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Brienza, C. (2010). ‘Producing comics culture: a sociological approach to the study of comics.’ Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, 1:2, 105-119.

Brown, J.A. (2001). Black Superheroes, Milestone Comics, and Their Fans. Jackson: University of Mississippi.

Clarke, K. (1993, 16 February). Personal communication.

Locke, S. (2009). ‘Considering comics as medium, art and culture – the case of From Hell.’ SCAN – The Journal of Media, Art and Culture. Vol. 6 No. 1. Available at

Pustz, M.J. (1999). Comic Book Culture: Fanboys and True Believers. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press.

Simon Locke is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Kingston University. He has been threatening to write stuff about comics since 1987 and has actually managed to produce a few papers and conference pieces since, including a chapter discussing continuity in superheroes in his recent book Re-crafting Rationalization: Enchanted Science and Mundane Mysteries (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011) and papers due out in the journals Public Understanding of Science and Journal of Contemporary Religion. But now he’s starting to get serious about it and is currently writing a book, due from Ashgate in 2013 entitled, Comics, Superheroes and their Fans: A Sociological Analysis. Hold your super-breath!

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Posted by on 2012/01/13 in Guest Writers


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