Why Art Historians Shouldn’t Ignore Comics

 

In the past twenty years, the field of comics has garnered unprecedented attention and appreciation.[1] This recognition has manifested not only in popular films and television shows inspired by comics, but also in a proliferating number of specialized comics publishing companies and a widening understanding of the capabilities of the art form. Now acknowledged as a medium rather than merely a genre of popular culture, comics encompasses an extensive range -- classic superhero narratives, biography, autobiography, journalism, historical fiction, and much more.

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi, originally published in 2000

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi, originally published in 2000

While comics as a medium has become increasingly more prevalent and relevant in American culture, according to JSTOR Daily’s article “Why Art Historians Still Ignore Comics,” scholarly criticism of the medium has lagged behind its commercial growth. Published on 5 July 2017, “Why Art Historians Still Ignore Comics” recounts Katherine Roeder’s 2008 essay “Looking High and Low at Comic Art,” and catalogs the obstacles art historians encounter when attempting to discuss comics. For example, comics’ hybridity as a medium, meaning its incorporation of both text and image, “leads experts to compartmentalize comics into literature or art.”[2] Furthermore, the fact that different individuals are often responsible for scripting versus drawing stories produced by large publishers, like Marvel or DC, complicates authorship. The lack of a definitive canon and agreed-upon nomenclature— “is it a ‘comic’ or a ‘graphic novel?’”— additionally confuses academic criticism of the medium.

These observations about comics, while neither incorrect nor irrelevant, remain reductive. Rather than illustrating issues that comics present to scholarship, “Why Art Historians Still Ignore Comics” instead inadvertently highlights art history’s aversion to ambiguity. Art historians’ presumed desire for a definitive comics canon, straightforward authorial attribution, and standardized terminology suggests that only strict categorization can define “Art” with a capital “a.” This speaks to a history of conservatism that many art historians and artists battle against, though it nevertheless lingers. In “Looking High and Low at Comic Art,” Roeder highlights this problematic trait of art history when she recounts how the 2005-2007 traveling exhibit Master of American Comics attempted to establish a comics canon only to omit women cartoonists, an upsetting, if unfortunately predictable, outcome.[3]

Roeder rightly interprets the limiting and dissatisfying desire for a comics canon as a symptom of insecurity regarding “the medium’s place at the table of high art.”[4] The question of “high” and “low,” a binary that postmodernism has failed to resolve, inevitably becomes a point of contention due to comics’ commercial connotations. Yet, arguments over cultural hierarchies have not prevented other academic disciplines from embracing comics criticism.

In the past ten years, comics scholarship within literature studies has flourished. In many universities, English Departments (and also notably American Studies departments) offer courses specifically on comics. The English Ph.D. program at the University of Florida even offers a focused comics studies track. Furthermore, literary scholars such as Hillary Chute have become prolific promoters of comics as a unique and interdisciplinary medium. Since 2010, Chute has written three books on comics and cartoonists, with a fourth slated to come out this December.[5]  Furthermore, she has contributed numerous articles to journals and critical anthologies on comics.

In one such article, “Comics as Literature? Reading Graphic Narrative,” written the same year that Roeder surveyed comics criticism in art history, Chute presents several reasons why literary studies has been more openly and actively accepting of comics. She states:  “Those of us in literary studies may think the move obvious making claims in the name of popular culture or in the rich tradition of word-and-image inquiry (bringing us back to the illuminated manuscripts of the middle ages).”[6] Perhaps a more relaxed attitude towards books, an art form often marketed to the masses, provides additional justification for comparative literature’s support of comics. In 2004, a cover article for The New York Times Magazine asserted that comics were rising in prominence and popularity because they represented a “new literary form” that represented “what novels used to be—an accessible, vernacular form with mass appeal.” [7]

Skim, Mariko Tamaki, originally published in 2008  

Skim, Mariko Tamaki, originally published in 2008
 

Yet even this defense of comics proves inadequate for expressing what comics represents and can contribute to popular culture and criticism. Reacting to this New York Times Magazine article, Chute insists that comics are more than visual descendants of novels and demands a re-examination of pre-established rubrics and traditional notions of “fiction, narrative, and historicity.”[8] In other words, comics represent an exciting new frontier in academic criticism that requires innovative and interdisciplinary methodologies. In light of this imperative, art history would benefit from interrogating its own practices in order to meaningfully engage with contemporary comics.

 At the very least, the question “Why Art Historians Still Ignore Comics” suggests an awareness that comics should not and, quite frankly, cannot be ignored by art history. Katherine Roeder, (and consequently JSTOR Daily), cites the commercial impact of comics in recent years as a crucial reason why comics must be considered. Certainly since 2008 comics’ presence in popular culture has exploded with a slew of new Marvel films and the recent success of Wonder Woman. However, beyond this popular presence in the media, the very nature and format of comics proves its strength and relevance in today’s world.

Comics, in its position as not quite literature and not quite art, has historically existed on the fringes of both mainstream media and accepted academia. America’s association with the art form is still arguably influenced by derogatory opinions, incited by the likes of Frederic Wertham, whose 1954 book Seduction of the Innocent claimed comic books were juvenile, thoughtless, and promoted illiteracy among America’s youth. Yet this marginalized medium persisted and notably provided marginalized communities a voice. One cannot forget that Jewish artists and writers, unable to find footholds in other industries during and after World War II, created our nation’s favorite spandex-clad superheroes. Beginning from the latter half of the 20th century until now, comics have attracted a variety of other often-alienated groups, including LGBTQ creators, women, and artists and writers of color.[9] Such diversity in comics—which of course has met opposition and various challenges but nevertheless persists— has in fact been recognized in various events here in Washington, including at a FRESH TALK panel held at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in June entitled, “Who are the New Superwomen of the Universe.” One may have also had the opportunity to hear Ta-Nahesi Coates discuss his new role writing for Marvel’s Black Panther series at Fantom Comics in Dupont Circle this year.[10] 

Black Panther, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, illustrated by Brian Stelfreeze, originally published in 2016

Black Panther, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, illustrated by Brian Stelfreeze, originally published in 2016

For those interested in exploring the world of comics further, this week from 16-17 September 2017, DMV residents can visit a diverse arena of indie publishing at the annual Small Press Expo (SPX) in the Marriot North Bethesda Hotel and Conference Center located off the White Flint metro station.

Small Press Expo (www.smallpressexpo.com

Small Press Expo (www.smallpressexpo.com

Comics provides the means and opportunity for creators to communicate and for consumers to read often-ignored or neglected narratives, illustrating that the ambiguous nature of comics is in fact an asset that art history needs to embrace rather than avoid. “Why Art Historians Still Ignore Comics” is a tired query during this exciting moment for comics. “Why Art Historians Shouldn’t Ignore Comics” provides richer avenues for discussion and for developing interdisciplinary comics criticism.

NOTES:

[1] The use of the singular verb here is intentional. While plural in form, comics as a medium is used with a singular verb. See: Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics (New York: HarperCollins, 1993), 9.

[2] Jazmin Smith, “Why Art Historians Still Ignore Comics,” published July 5th 2017: https://daily.jstor.org/why-art-historians-still-ignore-comics/

[3] Jazmin Smith, “Why Art Historians Still Ignore Comics,” published July 5th 2017: https://daily.jstor.org/why-art-historians-still-ignore-comics/

[4] Katherine Roeder, “Looking High and Low at Comic Art,” American Art 22 (2008): 2-9

[5] In 2010 Chute published Graphic Women, a book specifically examining the work of female cartoonists and how comics provides unique tools for expressing the female experience. Chute published Outside the Box: Interviews with Contemporary Cartoonists, a self-explanatory project, in 2014. In 2016, Chute published Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form, which discusses comics’ place in the history of print media and drawn depictions of war and trauma. This book in particular employs a highly interdisciplinary approach that includes art historical considerations. In order to contextualize contemporary comics, Chute analyzes the work of artists such as Honoré Daumier, Francisco Goya, William Hogarth, and Rudolphe Töpffer, among others. Even if art historians cannot agree on a canon, the artistic precedents for comics are plenty. Chute’s fourth book, Why Comics: From Underground to Everywhere, will be published this December.

[6] Hillary Chute, “Comics as literature? Reading Graphic Narrative,” PMLA 123 (2008): 452-465.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] While I was writing this article Tablet published a pertinent piece relating the Jewish history of comics with the current rise of queer comics: http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/243644/jewcy-flame-con

[10] It is worth mentioning that the Black Panther spin-off “Black Panther & The Crew” has been cancelled due to poor sales, illustrating one instance of diverse narratives facing obstacles in the comics market. For more, see: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/17/arts/black-panther-spinoff-canceled-marvel.html?mcubz=0

Athena Naylor