Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Reading Comics Like a Grownup

The graphic novel is commonly thought to have matured from pulp infancy to literary adulthood. However, comic writers remain burdened by the stigma of literary illegitimacy. In his new book Arresting Development: Comics at the Boundaries of Literature, Christopher Pizzino questions this idea that comics have "grown up" in the literary community's perception, arguing that the medium’s 
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history of censorship and marginalization endures in the minds of its present-day readers and, crucially, its authors. 

Christopher Pizzino is an assistant professor of contemporary US literature at the University of Georgia. We asked him to reflect on why he wrote his book.

Reading Comics Like a Grownup

By Christopher Pizzino

Some years ago, I had the interesting experience of seeing my name on a list entitled “One Hundred Arguments Against Tenure,” featured on an academic watchdog site. The reason for my inclusion on the list: I study and teach comics. The website didn’t mention which comics I studied, or the way I taught them. Apparently, teaching or studying any comics, for any reason, was out of bounds.

I wasn’t surprised or anxious to learn that someone was arguing for my intellectual worthlessness on that basis. The idea that comics don’t merit academic study is scarcely new. But over time, such experiences have made me ever more curious. Exactly how—and why—do some people continue to believe that taking comics seriously is absurd (and for the academic, something that ought to get one fired)?

The how is sometimes easy to see, and the more I’ve paid attention to it, the more stories I have to tell. A student in one of my American literature courses once stopped by my office to submit an essay. As she turned to leave, she paused in the doorway, glanced back with a strange look on her face, and blurted, “Is that a comic book?” I was, in fact, reading a volume of Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s science fiction series Y: The Last Man. Flipping through its pages and quickly handing it back as if it might somehow be contaminated, the student gave me the distinct impression that she had no faith in my ability to grade her essay on Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses.

This was before I became known for teaching courses on comics in my department. Many college students absorb some cultural prejudices from their parents and teachers; they assume that comics reading is something only kids do, and that to be a grownup student of literature is to leave the funnies behind. Thus, some students initially had difficulty understanding that the same professor who taught Cervantes, Austen, Woolf and Achebe in History and Theory of the Novel might, in other courses, assign books with pictures as well as words. That notion has had some time to sink in. Nowadays, for every student who seems to believe that the phrase “comics studies” is a contradiction in terms, several others are eager to study the medium, and to find out what words and pictures can do in the hands of great creators with important things to say and show.

This leads us to part of the why: often there is simply a lack of opportunity to find out that comics are not, in fact, the enemy of culture. Few adults in the US read comics—even fewer than the number who read books at all—and there aren’t many ways they can influence larger public perception of what it means for a grownup to read a comic book. This helps to explain why most adults who do read comics have stories like mine, tales of a moment when someone—a friend, teacher, fellow student, or stranger on the street—would let them know that studying comics, or just reading them in public, can be like having the word ILLITERATE tattooed on one’s forehead.

I teach a first-year-seminar focused on Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, one of the most complex and sophisticated comics ever made, and one of the best works of contemporary US fiction. Not surprisingly, students in the seminar tell me that when they try to explain to others how extraordinary Ware’s work is, they are sometimes met with severe skepticism. As one put it: “My roommate just sort of backed away slowly.” I never hear these kinds of stories in another seminar of mine, organized around David Foster Wallace’s massive, acclaimed novel Infinite Jest. “When people see you walking around with this huge book, they definitely don’t assume you’re dumb,” said one student. And I would guess that my ability to teach great works of world literature is the reason some students are willing to give me the benefit of the doubt regarding comics. Likewise, I don’t get the impression that my ability to teach Jimmy Corrigan is the basis for anyone’s confidence that I can handle Pride and Prejudice.

There are, of course, more pressing problems in human culture than the marginalization of comics in the United States. A brief glance at the global landscape shows us examples of censorship, and of the destruction of art and culture, that make anti-comics stigma in the US look like a fairly minor instance of iconoclasm. And when we look at attacks on comics from previous decades of our history—especially the 1950s, when the medium was blamed for everything from juvenile delinquency to adult illiteracy—it’s obvious that, for comics readers, things have changed for the better. Teachers and librarians who incorporate comics into their classrooms (almost an unthinkable proposition sixty years ago) are everywhere now. The most forward-thinking of these innovators are helping us to understand that comics are not some lesser kind of stepping-stone to “real” reading, but are simply part of literacy, and that pictures and words are mutually beneficial ways to enhance our knowledge and our culture.

And notwithstanding the skeptical looks I still sometimes get from students (or that they sometimes give one another), the study of comics is now an established, if small, part of the humanities. At my home university, the growth of comics in my department’s curriculum—in my own teaching as well as in several courses taught by others—has been a fairly smooth process. Colleagues with whom I converse across the country have similar experiences. Serious students of literature now have more opportunities to read comics for themselves, and they find the medium challenging, complex and well worth careful attention and analysis (which is, of course, exactly what one would expect from good art in any medium, visual or verbal).

Michael Kupperman, one-page strip from Tales Designed to Thrizzle issue 1, 2005.
Not to ignore the context of the moment, I am writing this blog thanks to the appearance of my book Arresting Development: Comics at the Boundaries of Literature in the University of Texas Press’s World Comics and Graphic Nonfiction Series, one of a growing number of efforts on the part of major university presses to bring more attention to the study of comics. And despite the ongoing presence of stigma that originated decades ago, I pursue my work today without much anxiety that a widespread anti-comics crusade looms on the horizon.

But what still motivates me is an intense curiosity about how we judge some forms of writing and picture-making to be less valid than others, and what effects these judgments have on creators and readers in the real world. This curiosity drove me to write Arresting Development, and to devote my time to understanding how comics have been shaped by decades’ worth of low status, threats of censorship, and marginalization.

Despite all that we know about the unfortunate history of comics, we often forget that actual comics creators do not live in a vacuum. And like their readers, they are not stupid. While a lucky few have seen their works turned into successful films, television series and video games (usually without boosting the sales of the comics themselves), comics creators know quite well that their profession doesn’t have the kind of prestige that comes with being a respected novelist or filmmaker. Comics artists whose work has stunning, heartbreaking power and beauty can remain virtually unknown outside comics culture. And whether or not they get a taste of wider success, most creators have interesting stories about how they are judged by the mainstream.

Take for instance this anecdote from Neil Gaiman, currently renowned as both a great comics writer and a great author of print fiction: “I remember once at a party running into the editor of the literary page of a major newspaper ... he was asking me what I did, and I said, ‘I write comics.’ And I could see him turn off—it was like, This is somebody beneath my nose. … and then I said, ‘I also do this thing called “Sandman,”’ and he went, ‘Wait, hang on, you’re Neil Gaiman!’ He said, ‘My God, man, you don’t write comics, you write graphic novels.’ And I suddenly felt like someone who had been informed that she wasn’t a hooker, that in fact she was a lady of the evening.”

This is an uncomfortable anecdote for a number of reasons, not least because it shows that Gaiman struggles to find the right comparison to explain how it felt to be patted on the head, so to speak, by the newspaper editor. Obviously Gaiman isn’t saying that he knows anything about what it means to be a sex worker condescended to by a john. Yet he reaches for this comparison to untangle a difficult mystery: why is this kind of hypocrisy such an intrinsic part of being “adult”? And how do adults take such comfort from their power hypocritically to change the status of their reading (or other, more illicit pleasures) by a change of label?

It can’t be denied that the label “graphic novel” has real power, and has helped pave the way for at least some comics to have a larger audience (clearly it made all the difference in the world to the editor in Gaiman’s story). The term was first put into wide circulation in the 1980s, and for the past thirty years and counting, it has helped to make comics seem more legitimate than they might otherwise. Even today, many people ask me in all seriousness how comic books differ from graphic novels. The real answer: they don’t. A graphic novel is a comic long enough, in terms of page count, that it can’t easily be stapled and must be bound like any other book. But it’s still a comic—often a collection of previously published stapled single issues, in fact—and the parts of the brain it exercises are exactly the same ones that light up when one is flipping through a 32-page issue of any comic book on a spinner rack.

Some would argue that the difference between graphic novels and comics is the difference between comics that are worth taking seriously and comics featuring costumed protagonists fighting costumed villains. In fact, when many people say “comic book,” they mean “superhero comic book,” as though there isn’t any other kind. But even a brief glance through the shelves and racks of a good comics shop demonstrates that while there are indeed plenty of superhero stories to choose from, there are also books about every other conceivable topic, from a wide range of genres (and if you’ve been to the multiplex lately, or turned on your television, you know that superhero stories aren’t confined to the comics shop anyway).

Further, since many superhero comic books are themselves collected as graphic novels—often very lavishly printed—we can’t really make a boundary to separate the skinny stapled books featuring Batman from the thick squarebound books featuring stories from real life. Nor is the superhero genre naturally “childish,” any more than character dramas are naturally “mature.” Comics don’t work like that any more than novels, films or television shows do. The presence or absence of a superpowered figure in tights really won’t tell us whether the story we’re encountering is good or not, grownup or immature. In other words, the graphic novel really isn’t a particular kind of book. It’s simply a way to change perceptions of comics.

And it often works quite well. Once I was in the waiting room of a doctor’s office reading Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard’s The Walking Dead. The man sitting next to me leaned over and—with truly impeccable Southern politeness—asked, “Now, what is that you’re reading?” (This was before the comic had been developed into a television show and become an unstoppable cultural phenomenon.) The man was, I quickly realized, not curious about the genre or the authors, but simply wanted to know how and why I was holding a book with so many pictures in it. Not for the first time, I avoided the long, true answer to his question, which would have required telling him about the censorship of comics in the 1950s and its effects on later cultural attitudes (including, probably, his own). I told him that some comics are for grownups now, and I sealed the deal with the term “graphic novel.” He nodded with interest and asked me to recommend some titles.

The graphic novel does indeed give some grownups permission to pick up a comic. Given the shrinking number of readers of any kind, it’s probably a myth comics can’t do without. There is one place, however, where you’re unlikely to find this myth: on the pages of comics themselves. As Gaiman’s anecdote indicates, comics creators are highly suspicious of the term “graphic novel,” even—or maybe especially—when it’s being used to compliment them. They see themselves as comics makers, period. They have often had to play status games in order to sell their books; the term “graphic novel” was first put into wide circulation by cartoonist Will Eisner. But comics creators don’t ignore their actual low status in the cultural hierarchy (and given incidents like Gaiman’s encounter with the editor, how could they?)

Which is why, ultimately, I wrote Arresting Development—to see how comics creators have been struggling with their marginal status, and what effects it has on their work. Many comics, including some of the most “literary” graphic novels, become even more interesting to read once we see how often their creators have status issues on their minds. Far from being ashamed of making comics, or of thinking their current status is good enough, they spend tremendous creative energy drawing pictures—often dazzlingly complex—of their own struggles, and of the medium’s difficult history.

And in most cases, they draw inspiration not from respectable literary novelists, or from creators in other media, but from their own predecessors in comics. They embrace the wild, brilliant, seemingly immature energy of Mad and other such publications, and they enjoy pulling the rug out from under readers like the editor in Gaiman’s story. To read a great contemporary comic is to be reminded that, like it or not, you’re holding a comic book—no matter how it’s labeled.

You may, of course, choose to call it a graphic novel (especially if it keeps you from becoming the object of vicious water cooler gossip). But you are actually reading a comic book, and you are thus part of the difficult, complex, fascinating history the term “graphic novel” covers up. Use the term if you need to, but—as the punsters at Mad might put it—don’t kid yourself. Once we understand how comics creators respond to very real, ongoing status problems, the pages of their work light up in entirely new ways. To ignore what they express would be, well, childish. Better to admit that one is reading comic books, like a grownup.


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