A Reply to Simon Locke by Casey Brienza

20 Jan

It is both an honour and a privilege to have been invited to respond to Simon Locke’s article on Comics Forum. Many thanks to Ian Hague for this opportunity.

In ‘Constructing a Sociology of Comics’, Simon accuses me of a ‘retrograde’, ‘stultifying focus on production’. As methodological debates are one of the academe’s favorite pastimes, I am not at all surprised he has chosen this direction for his reply to my work. However, I am very disappointed by what is clearly not a particularly nuanced reading of it, for Simon vastly overstates the ambition of the argument of ‘Producing Comics Culture: A Sociological Approach to the Study of Comics’. Note that I in fact chose the subtitle of the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics article deliberately; the text summarizes ‘a’ sociologically-informed methodological approach to the study of comics. I never claim that it is ‘the’ only one. I do not even, for that matter, claim that it is the best one. The following quote is taken directly from the original article:

Ultimately, a methodology informed by the production of culture perspective is but one approach to research of many, and it both complements and is complemented by others. Comics scholarship has not even begun to exhaust the methodological possibilities available – yet does a full appreciation of the sequential art medium itself demand anything less than every conceivable way of knowing it? Surely it cannot be otherwise. (Brienza 2010, 115)

Now, we all have our own personal intellectual histories, and since Simon was so good as to offer an account of his own, I will do likewise. In 2003, I graduated with an undergraduate degree in English literature and East Asian studies. I was steeped in academic study which emphasized textual criticism, close reading, and geographically-demarcated units of analysis. After a Fulbright Fellowship in South Korea, I returned to the United States and ended up working on the periphery of the American manga publishing industry. This was the mid-2000s, and I had a front-row seat to what is now called ‘the manga boom’. It was an exhilarating experience…yet nothing from my undergraduate career had provided me with a way to even begin articulating what I was seeing.

Bewilderment is what brought me back to the academic fold. I began postgraduate study in 2007 at NYU’s Department of Media, Culture and Communication where I was introduced to the work of Bourdieu (1993; 1996), Becker (1982), and Peterson (1982; 1985). Their writing on cultural production has come to inform my own research on American manga publishing (see Brienza 2009a; Brienza 2009b). In the article ‘Books, Not Comics: Publishing Fields, Globalization, and Japanese Manga in the United States’, I show that manga became popular because it became a part of the trade book publishing field at a particular moment in history. It is quite simply impossible to understand what happened by studying the text or the audience. For manga, the conditions of production are key.

My own experience led me to the realization that comics scholars were in need of a non-specialist introduction to the production of culture perspective. ‘Producing Comics Culture’ was, in short, written for the person I once was, the humanist desperately trying to see beyond text and national territory. In the article, I suggest fives areas which may influence the cultural production of comics: occupational careers, organizational structure, law, market, and technology. This is not an all-inclusive list, nor are all areas necessarily applicable to all situations. They are, rather, prompts for thinking about one’s research subject anew. Sure enough, the article’s popularity since its publication (as of this writing it is the most read article in the journal according to Taylor & Francis Online) has only confirmed to me that this venerable methodology has not yet outlived its utility.

Nevertheless, I am at heart a pragmatist. If a tool is useful, then use it; if it is not useful, then discard it. The same ought to go for theories and methodologies. We must never forget to ask, ‘Does this help me answer my research question?’ Comics might be a great medium for zombies (see Walking Dead), but comics scholarship is most definitely not! The production of culture perspective works for me in my research on the first new category of books in the 21st century, and so I use it. Others clearly see the value as well; I have received many messages of thanks from students and experienced researchers alike since the publication of ‘Producing Comic Culture’. In any case, as a sociologist I look forward to seeing more comics scholarship deploying sociological methods to answer interesting questions and in the meantime repeat for a third—and hopefully last—time: ‘[D]oes a full appreciation of the sequential art medium itself demand anything less than every conceivable way of knowing it? Surely it cannot be otherwise’.


Becker, Howard S. 1982. Art worlds. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1993. The field of cultural production: essays on art and literature. Cambridge: Polity.

———. 1996. The rules of art: genesis and structure of the literary field. Cambridge: Polity.

Brienza, Casey. 2009a. “Paratexts in Translation: Reinterpreting ‘Manga’ for the United States.” The International Journal of the Book 6 (2): 13–20.

———. 2009b. “Books, Not Comics: Publishing Fields, Globalization, and Japanese Manga in the United States.” Publishing Research Quarterly 25 (2): 101-117. doi:10.1007/s12109-009-9114-2.

———. 2010. “Producing comics culture: a sociological approach to the study of comics.” Journal of Graphic Novels & Comics 1 (2): 105-119. doi:10.1080/21504857.2010.528638.

Peterson, Richard A. 1982. “Five Constraints on the Production of Culture: Law, Technology, Market, Organizational Structure and Occupational Careers.” The Journal of Popular Culture 16 (2): 143-153. doi:10.1111/j.0022-3840.1982.1451443.x.

———. 1985. “Six constraints on the production of literary works.” Poetics 14 (1-2): 45-67. doi:10.1016/0304-422X(85)90004-X.

Casey Brienza is a PhD candidate in Sociology at the University of Cambridge and member of Trinity College, Cambridge. She received her AB from Mount Holyoke College in 2003 and her MA from New York University’s Department of Media, Culture, and Communication in 2009. Between her first and second degrees she was a Fulbright Fellow to South Korea. Her doctoral thesis, fully funded by an External Research Studentship from her College, is being written on manga publishing and the transnational production of print culture. Casey’s peer-reviewed articles are in print or forthcoming in The Journal of Popular Culture, Logos, Publishing Research Quarterly, Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, and The International Journal of the Book. She is also regarded as one of the top manga experts in the United States.


Posted by on 2012/01/20 in Guest Writers


6 responses to “A Reply to Simon Locke by Casey Brienza

  1. Dr Ernesto Priego (@ernestopriego)

    2012/01/20 at 12:28

    “For manga, the conditions of production are key.” I think this is spot-on, and I would argue this is the case for all comics, not only manga (I enjoyed Tatsumi’s A Drifting Life (2009) precisely because it brings this to the fore in a very obvious, unavoidable way).

    An attempt to separate the conditions in which comics are produced from their textuality, reception, study or commercialisation seems to me futile, if not running the risk of de-historicising them. My own research goes in different directions to Casey’s, but it nevertheless shares what we can call an enthusiasm for different sociological methods (examples: 2010a and 2010b).


    • Casey Brienza

      2012/01/20 at 17:19

      @Ernesto: Many thanks for the comment!

      @Anyone Else Reading This Comment: I saw Ernesto give a talk on his comics research back in 2010, and it was fabulous. He does great work.


  2. Pablo Turnes

    2012/02/04 at 19:49

    I´ve been enjoying reading both your articles. I believe the recently reconstruccion proccess in the argentinian academic field of comics reseach may provide interesting simmilarities. Laura Vazquez´s work El oficio de la viñetas (The Job of Vignettes) is essentially what Casey here has been proposing. Its theoretic approach is rooted in Bourdieu´s works, but also in local researchers and specially in the word of authors, editors and critics from the field of comics. The relations bewteen cultural and economical constrictions inevitably influence the artistic practice, and at the same time the prestige capital tends to gain some autonomy when a certain period – namely, the so called Gold Age of Comics in Argentina from the late 1930´s to 1960 – is retrospectively evaluated and judged. Comics provide an interesting challenge: the reconstruction of the field often presents us with a double handicap, since the need to gain analytical tools – that often mean readapting, rescuing or generating those very tools that haven´t been either deepened in their reach nor used before in the comics field – adds up to the need to bring some coherence to a certain period of time that might or might not have been thought of in such perspective before. I think i´ve overwritten myself, so I´ll stop here and hope to continue our fruitful exchange.



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