Thursday, July 11, 2013

Did Comics Criticism Ever Exist?

I decided to translate the post below, so, here it goes:

The present text was written nine years ago and was never published (I changed some things now, but not much). This means that it far predates the boom of comics studies. Most of what is cited below is trash, but, after separating the wheat from the chaff, the panorama is not as dismal as one might suppose. An important omission below is Thierry Lagarde's mag STP. Even if I cite Bruno Lecigne I didn't mention his magazine Controverse, but, above all, Dorénavant by Barthélémy Schwartz and Balthazar Kaplan was unduly omitted.

Dedicated to João Bénard da Costa... In memoriam...

                                                                                             "I like junk food, but I admit it’s
                                                                                               junk food. Beware of the quasi-
                                                                                               highbrow comics critic who tries
                                                                                               to tell you Frank MIller
                                                                                               and Howard Chaykin write well."

                                                                                               (Harvey Pekar, 1989: 128)

         Countless rivers of ink, paper reams, bits and electromagnetic waves have been used to think about the morphology and the epistemology of criticism. I excuse myself from adding something more (or I'll add little more) to the discussion at hand and fix up the issue quoting Eduardo Prado Coelho. He wrote the best reflections on the problem in Portuguese newspapers: "Unsurprisingly the word "criticism" includes several writing practices. One of these practices happens mainly in academia and consists in, after having "fixed" (to the extent that this is possible) the text under study, "explaining" (insofar as possible) the work according to its various historical contexts: I mean the philological criticism with its historicist dominant. Another is to journalistically present the book in question so that the reader can get an idea of ​​its "content" - it's what's called "a review." A third case is to make a value judgment basing it on a certain sum of arguments - this is evaluative criticism. Finally (but the list could be longer), there's the criticism that seeks interpretative hypothesis about the work in order to put the emphasis on certain aspects that are not immediately obvious. In this case, the value judgment is implicit: the work is worth the effort because there's value in it" (Prado Coelho. 2001: 15; my translation). Obviously these various forms of criticism are not mutually exclusive. In many texts it's possible to find them contaminating each other. I would also add, referring myself to more ambitious criticism, that: 1) criticism implies the problem of aesthetic value, of course, but it also implies, why not?, the ethical value; 2) since, as Adorno put it, the "aesthetic form [is] sedimented content " (1993: 15; my translation), there is no serious criticism without formal analysis; 3) critical discourse can be more or less nomadic, but it must never lose sight of the work being criticized (coastal shipping); 4) against the view defended by formalist criticism, many of criticism's problems are also played in the field of meaning; 5) judging from what's been said until now we can conclude, with Renaud Chavanne, that a complex critical discourse is not about the: "conditions of realization [of the work] which concern the historian [and the sociologist, but I wouldn't be too dogmatic about this point]. It's not about the author's life, which interests the biographer. It's not an accumulation of references, an absurd list of all the works of the author" (1997: 5, my translation). I would also add that a simple account of the diegetic events is not serious criticism.
          Axiology has become a can of worms. The situation became a cacophony of discordant voices, all claiming the legitimacy of their hierarchy of values​​, or simply repudiating the instrumentation of existing hierarchies by all the others. Eduardo Prado Coelho (him again) summed up the situation as follows: "the question of aesthetic value and aesthetic rationality has been undermined by a series of autonomous movements with convergent effects: the consequences of nominalist art from Marcel Duchamp on; the attempts, in Nelson Goodman's line, of transferring the aesthetic to the cognitive; the increasing muteness that took hold of the nephews of Wittgenstein in these matters; the theories of an institutional definition of art following George Dickie; the view that value judgment is simply part of a differentiation process following Pierre Bourdieu's theories; the Habermasian democratism of Yves Michaud " (Prado Coelho, 1998: 8; my translation). Eduardo Prado Coelho could also add Derrida's deconstructionism, but let's move on...

         This brief text is not the ideal place to discuss such complex issues, of course, but honestly, I do not see how does Dickie's nominalism, for example, attack the traditional hierarchy which puts high culture above low culture (or any other distinction). Institutions socially legitimize works and artists, as they always did. This is, in itself, a neutral phenomenon which can only make us ponder on the subjectivity of the entire hierarchy of values ​​since, while academia legitimizes (or legitimized) James Joyce, television legitimizes, in a democratic or manipulative way (?) The Rolling Stones (I must point out, however, that after Bowling Green, and the growing influence of American culture in our lives, the legitimization of mass culture is no longer an exclusive task of the mass media). It is undeniable that there is subjectivity in the process, but Kant (1992) and Hume (1997) knew that already, that's nothing new... The former counters the relativism of aesthetic judgment by intersubjective validation (Dickie's model isn't even, very far away), the latter refutes it saying that certain judges are better than others (in Hume's essay we find Sancho Panza as a winemaker: he and his relatives can only judge the quality of a wine better than a teetotaler). Interestingly Hume himself unwittingly corroborates the subjectivity of these phenomena by saying: "And not to draw our philosophy from too profound a source, we shall have recourse to a noted story in D. Quixote" (Hume, 1997). I. e.: Cervantes' book went from being not too deep a source to lead the literary canon. Or, who knows?, perhaps Hume considered the Quijote a deep book, but Sancho's story was excluded from such heights or depths...

         It's a well known fact that comics have been banned from the "high" spheres of high culture and aesthetic validation. In the end it's just a political struggle. Must we call for a democratic logic applied to culture? Should we report the construction of a taste that marginalizes the lower social classes? It's possible... under the condition that democratization means equal opportunities in the access to quality and not a fall into the exaggeration of considering aesthetically good (or beautiful, but the word is under suspicion too these days...) the work of a mediocre artist only because of his or her skin color or gender (practicing the so-called "affirmative action"). (I know that the idea of genius is now discredited, but if it weren't the case, we wouldn't be far from seeing the approval of legislation in favor of a genius quota for the minorities). On the other hand I have nothing against elitism if it just means that aesthetic quality is only accessible to a happy few (for lack of interest, time, etc... on the part of most people; all these are reasons transversal to all society, mind you...). I'm against elitism, undoubtedly, if it prevents the recognition of aesthetic quality outside the parameters dictated by prejudiced snobs. Returning to democracy and value judgment: imagine what would happen if thousands of non-specialists voted against the technique used by an aircraft or bridge engineer... The disaster, certainly...

        There are two levels to frame aesthetic judgments: personal taste cannot be discussed (everyone has a right to bad taste, no one can completely escape the call of kitsch in all areas: the unspoiled elegance would be attainable only after endless hours of relentless dedication); but, as a society, we must rely on the specialists' judgment (not abdicating, as free citizens, to reveal the possible injustices committed by the intelligentsia). 

         Political correctness is one of the most important cultural earthquakes in this beginning of the millennium. This is so because it drew attention to phenomena of political and cultural domination (which will always exist, have no illusions). If there is abuse by some advocates of political correctness many years must pass until they reach the same amount of injustice caused by their symmetrical opponents. It is not so much the famous "crisis of values​​," but the replacement of old values ​​by new ones... so everything can stay the same, as in all revolutions (cf. Lampedusa, 2000: 24; Buzzelli, 1967).
       What about comics, then? Until Umberto Eco, in the early 1960s, comics were virtually ignored by the intelligentsia (an almost unique case, the other one is Gilbert Seldes, is Wolfgang von Goethe, in 1831, who wrote this extraordinary comment on Rodolphe Töpffer's books: "If for the future, he would choose a less frivolous subject and restrict himself a little, he would produce things beyond all conception" (Goethe, n. d. [1850]) translation by John Oxenford; Goethe, it seems to me, prophesied the so-called alternative comics). Excluding academia, the first critics were artists themselves, or, more frequently, the fans. As the name shows, the fans write mostly in fanzines, but these are too numerous for me to be able to name them all in a brief text. Fanzines in the United States started by being linked to science fiction. The first fanzines devoted to comics in that country were: EC Fan Bulletin (1953) by Bhob Stewart; Comic Art (1961) by Don Thompson and Maggie Spencer; Alter-Ego (1961) by Roy Thomas and Jerry Bails; Spa Fon (1966) by Rich Hauser and Helmut Mueller; Squa Tront (1967) by Jerry Weist, where the already mentioned  Bhob Stewart pontificated with Larry Stark; Panels (1979) by John Benson. (comics criticism in the newspapers is absent from this text.) Talking about books, then (and many must be suppressed too), there are: Comics and Their Creators by Martin Sheridan (1942); the first book entirely dedicated to comics (more specifically, to the field of newspaper comics), The Comics by Coulton Wough (1947) and The Funnies: An American Idiom (1963), a collective work organized by David Manning White and Robert H. Abel; All in Color For a Dime (1970) by Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson with the sequel The Comic-Book Book (1977) by the same authors; Comic Art in America (1976) by Stephen Becker. In a similar vein comes America's Great Comic Strip Artists (1989) by Richard Marschall. With numerous prefaces Bill Blackbeard, could also be cited (it is worth noting his long text in RF Outcault's The Yellow Kid: A Centennial Celebration of the Kid Who Started the Comics - 1995 - which goes beyond the mere amateur level). The fans' writing tends to the biographical, hagiographic, their tone and objectives are linked to the popularizing of comics. The language is accessible, theoretical knowledge is implicitly or explicitly absent or almost absent. Despite their love of the comics form these early fans refused to see comics as something more than popular entertainment. They feared being dubbed snobs (?), maybe...    

       The Comics (1974) by Jerry Robinson (the same author wrote the amply illustrated monograh, Skippy and Percy Crosby - 1978) comes from the same vein of comics criticism by fans and pros described above. Another interesting book written by a professional is The Great Comic Book Heroes (1965) by Jules Feiffer. As far as monographs go, there's: Citizen Caniff (1969) by Claudio Bertieri; Crumb (1974) by Marjorie Alessandrini; Gotlib (1974) by Numa Sadoul; Fred (1975) by Bernard Toussaint, Tardi (1980) by Thierry Groensteen; Un opera de papier: les memoires de Blake et Mortimer (1981) by E. P. Jacobs; Le monde d'Hergé (1983) by Benoît Peeters; Corentin et les chemins du merveilleux: Paul Cuvelier et la bande dessinée (1984) by Philippe Goddin; Krazy Kat: The Comic Art of George Herriman (1986), by Patrick McDonnell, Karen O'Connell, Georgia Riley de Havenon; Winsor McCay: His Life and Art (1987) by John Canemaker; Foster e Val (1989) by Manuel Caldas; Töpffer: L'invention de la bande dessinée (1994) by Thierry Groensteen and Benoît Peeters; Accidental Ambassador Gordo: the comic Strip art of Gus Arriola (2000), by Robert C. Harvey; Hal Foster: Prince of Illustrators. Father of the Adventure Strip (2001) by Brian M. Kane; B. Krigstein (2002) by Greg Sadowski and a long etc... Deserving attention are the collections of interviews (even if these aren't criticism exactly): La aventura del comic (1975) with interviews conducted by Alfonso Lindo; Entretiens avec Hergé (1975) by Numa Sadoul; Charles M. Schulz: Conversations (2000) edited M. Thomas Inge; La nouvelle bande dessinée (2002) by Hugues Dayez; Carl Barks: Conversations (2003) edited by Donald Ault; Artistes de bande dessinée (2003) by Thierry Groensteen, etc...

      The boom of amateur publications occurred in Europe during the 1960s with the publication of the French magazines: Giff-Wiff (1962), Phenix (1966), Schtroumpf: Les cahiers de la bande dessinée by Jacques Glénat (1969, later, in 1984, just Les Cahiers de la Bande dessinée). This magazine is one of the most important critical contributions to the history of Western comics criticism (this text does not include Japan and other countries, with one exception, whose official and other languages I can't read). While it was directed by Thierry Groensteen (from number 56 to number 83), it far surpassed all that had already been done in this field leaving the amateur past behind. It featured appearances by critics as important a Groensteen, Bruno Lecigne, Gilles Ciment, Jean-Pierre Tamine, Benoît Peeters. What was lacking in the magazine was a leap that, for the moment, no one has leapt: to truly separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of aesthetic value.

      Jacques Sadoul is another amateur who published the books L'enfer des boulles (1968) and Panorama de la bande dessinée (1976); ditto Edouard François who published L'age d'or de la bande dessinée (1974). It's also worth mentioning the Belgian fanzine Rantanplan (1966) by André Leborgne, and the Italian fanzine Comics Club (1967) by Alfredo Castelli. The first book entirely devoted to comics published in Italy was I fumetti (1961) by Carlo della Corte. It is also noteworthy the fanzine Fumo di China (1978) founded by Franco Spiritelli, Andrea Magoni, Mauro Marcheselli and Andrea Plazzi. The title of François' book above indicates a certain (to put it mildly) nostalgia (a golden age is something that has been lost). Interestingly enough this supposed golden age didn't happen in France, but in the United States: they were the (very badly) dubbed realistic comics of the 1930s (i. e., they longed for the children's adventure comics published in American newspapers and reprinted in France in mags like Robinson, Hop-Là, etc...). All this activity was linked to recreational associations created to promote a nostalgic enjoyment and preservation of children's comics. There was in France the Club des Bandes Dessinées (Alain Resnais was one of the vice presidents, the president was Francis Lacassin and among the members or sympathizers were Alvaro de Moya, Federico Fellini, Evelyne Sullerot, Umberto Eco, etc...), CELEG (Centre d'Etude des Littératures d'Expression Graphique) from 1964 on, the SOCERLID (Société Civile d'Étude et de Recherches des Littératures Dessinées). In Belgium there was the CABD (Club des Amis de la Bande Dessinée). In Italy the ANAF (Associazione Nazionale Amici del Fumetto). In Spain Luis Gasca founded the Centro de Estudio de Expresión Gráfica and Antonio Martín was one of the pioneers of comics criticism with his magazine Bang! (1968). The fanzine El Wendigo (1974) stands out in longevity. Despite being a fan publication it includes excellent formalist texts by Faustino Arbesú. In Portugal the following fanzines are worth citing: Quadrinhos (1972) by Vasco Granja; Nemo (1986) by Manuel Caldas, Bedelho (1988) by Francisco Gil and Fernando Vieira. The Portuguese Comics Club - Clube Português de Banda Desenhada (CPBD) publishes a newsletter (1977).

The historiography of comics owes much to the fans. Unfortunately, since these are not professional historians, their books and essays are more collections of (bio and bibliographical) data than true history books (with interpretative summaries of events, the contextualization of the work in social trends, formal analysis, etc...). In the United States, besides Jerry Robinson's The Comics, the following books may be cited: Comix: A History of Comic Books in America (1971) by Les Daniels; Over 50 Years of American Comic Books (1991) by Ron Goulart; The Art of the Funnies: An Aesthetic History (1994) and The Art of the Comic Book: An Aesthetic History by Robert C. Harvey (1996 - the year in which many comics histories were published to celebrate the art form's supposed birth with the Yellow Kid, a century before). In France we can find Histoire de la bande dessinée d'expression française (1972) and Histoire mondiale de la bande dessinée (1981), both authored by Claude Moliterni; Histoire de la Bande Dessinée en France et en Belgique des origines à nos jours by Henri Filippini (1980); Asterix, Barbarella & Cie (2000) by Thierry Groensteen. In Portugal stands out the pioneering work Os Comics em Portugal: uma historia da banda desenhada by António Dias de Deus (with an addendum by Leonardo de Sá - 1997) and Das Conferences do Casino à Filosofia de Ponta (2000) by Carlos Bandeiras Pinheiro and João Paiva Boléo (Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation also published, by the same authors, A Banda Desenhada Portuguesa: 1914-1945 - 1997 -  and A Banda Desenhada Portuguesa: Anos 40-Anos 80 - 2000). Leonardo de Sá and Geraldes Lino published O Dédalo dos Fanzines (1997). In Spain Fernando Martin stands out with Apuntes para una historia de los tebeos (1967) and Los inventores del comic español (2000). Not forgetting Antonio Altarriba with La España del tebeo (2001 - a history book which, as the title suggests, connects comics characters and dictator Franco's Spain until the democratic transition) or the monumental Atlas Español de la cultura popular: De la Historieta y su uso. 1873 - 2000 (2000) by Jesús Quadrado. Also in Spain I'll cite three books by Javier ComaLos comics: un arte del siglo XX (1977), Del gato Félix al gato Fritz: Historia de los comics (1979 ), El ocaso de los héroes en los comics de autor (1984). In Argentina there are two important history books: Historia de la historieta argentina (1980) by Carlos Trillo and Guillermo Saccomano and La historieta argentina: Una historia (2000) by Judith Gociol and Diego Rosemberg. In Britain, apart from Dennis Gifford's The British Comics Catalogue 1874-1974 (1975), three books by Roger Sabin may be cited: Adult Comics: An Introduction (1993), Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels: A History of Comic Art (1996), Below Critical Radar: Fanzines and Alternative Comics from 1976 to now (2002 - with Teal Triggs). There's some historiography of Underground comics already. I mean: A History of Underground Comics (1974) by Mark James Estrin; Rebel Visions: The Underground Revolution 1963-1975 (2002) by Patrick Rosenkranz; Comix: The Underground Revolution (2004) by Dez Skinn. American alternative comics found their historian in the figure of the Spaniard Oscar Palmer: Cómic alternativo de los '90 (2000). Coming from the underground, the artist Trina Robbins wrote the history of comics created ​​by women in A Century of Women Cartoonists (1993) and From Girls to Grrrl: A History of Women's Comics from Teens to Zines (1999); Wendy Siuyi Wong divulged the history of Hong Kong comics with the book hong kong comics: a history of manhua (2002). Adding to this paragraph, just another long etc...

Encyclopedias are the realm of the fan. As they combine the facet of scholars to that of collectors nothing more natural than trying to catalog everything that exists. I will mention just a few examples: The World Encyclopedia of Comics (1976), under the direction of Maurice Horn and unfortunately with many mistakes; Encyclopédie des bandes dessinées (1979) under the supervision of Marjorie Alessandrini; The Encyclopedia of American Comics (1990) edited by Ron Goulart; Dictionnaire mondial de la bande dessinée (1994), by Patrick Gaumer and Claude Moliterni.

Since I've cited Thierry Groensteen already I can proceed to the second "kind" of comics critics: journalists and experts. These are not academics just because they are not directly related to academia. Thierry Groensteen, for example, belongs with this category, with numerous popularizing books, and the next one, the academic, with Système de la bande dessinée (1999). Besides being the managing editor of the Cahiers de la bande dessinée during its genuinely interesting phase he's currently the managing editor of the not less important 9e art magazine. Thierry Groensteen wrote: Animaux en cases (1987), L'Univers des manga: une introduction à la BD japonaise (1991), Couleur directe (1993), La construction de La Cage: autopsie d'un roman visuel (2002), etc... Talking about American comics criticism it's mandatory to mention: The Seven Lively Arts by Gilbert Seldes (1924) even if it's is not a book entirely devoted to comics (Seldes argued, showing a pioneer spirit that the "minor" art forms are as valid as the "great" arts"); there's also Carl Barks and the Art of the Comic Book by Michael Barrier (1981), and Reading the Funnies by Donald Phelps (2001). Excellent is El domicilio de la aventura (1995) by the great Argentinean critic Juan Sasturain. Back in Europe it's worth citing Psicopatologia de la viñeta quotidiana  by the Spaniard Jesus Quadrado (2000), and Sobre BD (2004) a recent book by the Portuguese David Soares. A very special case is Bruno Lecigne who, in his solo book Avanies et Mascarade: L'évolution de la bande dessinée en France dans les annes 70 (1981), or accompanied by Jean-Pierre Tamine in Fac-Simile: Essai paratactique sur le Nouveau Réalisme de la Bande dessinée (1983) wrote some of the best pages ever dedicated to comics. The disclosure of the very rich and complex world of Japanese comics in the West was mainly in charge of Frederik L. Schodt with Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics (1983) and Dreamland Japan (1996).

As for specialized magazines (besides those, already mentioned, whose managing editor was or is Thierry Groensteen) there's the Portuguese Quadrado (1993) and Satélite International (2002) whose writers are: Pedro Moura, Domingos Isabelinho, Marcos Farrajota, João Paulo Cotrim, Paulo Patrício, and others with more occasional participations. In France there was the extraordinary magazine/fanzine Critix (1996), where Jean-Philippe Martin, Evariste Blanchet, Renaud Chavanne, Pierre Huard (coming from academic criticism) and even Fabrice Neaud wrote. The disappearance of Critix bitterly proves that it is not feasible to publish a high quality magazine about comics without institutional support. In the United States there are many specialty mags, but they are almost all made by superhero fans for superhero fans (for instance, the magazine/fanzine Alter Ego, already mentioned as a fanzine, is living a new reincarnation today as a mag). With a more accurate critical spirit, but without getting much farther, in many cases, it's nonetheless mandatory that I  cite the very influential magazine The Comics Journal whose writers are: Gary Groth (an excellent critic who, unfortunately, doesn't write often enough), Darcy Sullivan, Ng Suat Tong, Robert Fiore, Bart Beaty (with a great column about European comics), Gregory Cwiklik, Tom Spurgeon, Robert C. Harvey and dozens of others with more occasional participations. The Comics Journal has been accused of being elitist and snob, but the charge is not fair because with occasional changes in the position of managing editor, and without a coherent editorial policy, the magazine can both give a voice to a conservative critic (RC Harvey or Ray Mescallado, for instance) and to a staunch supporter of the "vanguard." Worthy of note is also the case of Graphis magazine, dedicated to graphic design, which published two special numbers (159, 60-1972 / 73) to comics. The organization was in charge of David Pascal and Walter Herdeg, the articles were written by Pierre Couperie, Claude Moliterni, Archie Goodwin, Gil Kane, Les Daniels, Jules Feiffer, David Pascal, Robert Weaver, Alain Resnais, Milton Glaser, Umberto Eco.

Aesthetic evaluation In academic criticism no longer makes sense. This is so because academics try to avoid essentialism and the canon wars. However, the institution has such prestige that any work it chooses to study immediately wins a status above almost everything else. Maybe that's why there was (and still is) in certain sectors of academia a strong opposition to the study of comics. Maybe these comics haters try to prevent the rise in social status of a minor art form? When Umberto Eco wrote about Steve Canyon, Peanuts, L'Il ​​Abner and Superman in Apocalittici e Integrati: comunicazioni di massa e teorie della cultura di massa (1964)  he received a negative reception from the so-called "apocalyptical" (especially from the Marxists inspired by the line of thought of the Frankfurt School, but also by the right-wing conservatives, staunch defenders of traditional values ​​and the divide between major and minor arts). On the other hand the "integrated" appeared, in the United States, at the University of Bowling Green.

The Cuban case is paradigmatic of the attack on the values ​​of capitalist America. Books like La vida en cuadritos (1993) by Paquita Armas send their stings to the imperialist exploiters of the third world. And yet I sense that, at the same time, American comics have a particular fascination to her. What results, in fact, is a kind of love/hate relationship. But the most famous (and the best, by the way) book of this type of Marxist critique of American imperialism is Para leer el Pato Donald (1972) by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart. A similar approach, but targetting Franco-Belgian comics is La société des bulles (1977) by Wilbur Leguebe. In Brazilian Portuguese there's Uma Introdução Política Aos Quadrinhos (1982) by Moacy Cirne.

One of the first avenues that comics used to enter academia was structural and semiotic analysis (or semiological, if we are not Peirceian but Saussurian). The aforementioned Umberto Eco is a very important semiotician. Other books in this category are: A Explosão Criativa Dos Quadrinhos by Moacy Cirne (1970); El lenguage de los comics (1972) by Roman Gubern; Dessins et bulles: la bande dessinée comme moyen d'expression (1972) and La bande dessinée: essai d'analyze sémiotique (1972) both by Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle; "La bande dessinée et son discours" an anthology published as number 24 of the journal Communications (1976) with essays by Fresnault-Deruelle, Umberto Eco Luc Routeau, Vicky and Philippe du Fontbaré Sohet, Bernard Toussaint, Michel Rio, Guy Gauthier, René Lindekens, Picquenot Alain Michel Covin; Structuren des Comic Strip (1974) by W. Hünig; Récits et discours par la bande (1977) by Pierre-Fresnault Deruelle, again. We can find the formalist tendency in more recent books such as Case, planche, récit: comment lire une bande dessinée (1991) by Benoît Peeters. The structuralist tendency can still  the detected in the overrated Understanding Comics (1993) by Scott McCloud (McCloud and Will Eisner, who wrote two books on the language of comics, plus Benoît Peeters, are artists, not academics; it's quite natural to write about their practice because they face formal problems every day). Traces en cases by Philippe Marion and Pour une lecture moderne de la bande dessinée by Jan Baetens and Pascal Lefèvre were also published in 1993. Ten years later, in 2003, Principes des littératures dessinées by Harry Morgan was published (I include this book in this list even if the author contests his predecessors of the 1970s). In Italy Umberto Eco has left at least one disciple: Daniele Barbieri, who wrote I linguaggi del fumetto (1991). A curio, just to demonstrate that the periphery also moves is Tralala del Comic (1997) published in Santo Domingo by Faustino Perez. But the best book in this category was mentioned already. It's Système de la bande dessinée (1999) by Thierry Groensteen. Rui Zink's thesis Literatura Gráfica? (1999) is a mixture of many approaches, but the formal theory is also present.

Another route that comics studies used to enter academia was sociology. It's important to cite at this point Luc Boltanski's "La constitution du champ de la bande dessinée" in the mag Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales number 1 (1975). There's also Bandes dessinées et culture (1965) by Évelyne Sullerot. In the field of cultural studies there's The Comic-Stripped American: What Dick Tracy, Blondie, Daddy Warbucks and Charlie Brown Tell Us About Ourselves (1973) by pioneer Arthur Asa Berger and Martin Barker's Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics (1989). The "Bowling Green" approach (indistinguishable from the typical hagiography of fans, with no visible theoretical apparatus behind) can be found in the books of the University Press of Mississippi, for example in M. Thomas Inge's Comics As Culture (1990) and Matthew J. Pustz's Fanboys and True Believers (1999).

Art historians didn't focus much on comics and, on top of that, they haven't done a very good job at it. This is the case of: Historia da Banda Desenhada Infantil Portuguesa (Das Origens Até ao ABCzinho) by João Pedro Ferro  (1987); The Aesthetics of Comics (2000) by David Carrier; Comic Book Nation (2001) by Bradford W. Wright; Los comics de la transición: (El Boom del Comic adulto 1975 - 1984) (2001) by Francesca Lladó. The truth is that, except for a detail or another, these historiographical approaches do not differ that much from those made by amateurs. Perhaps historians are less concerned with recording everything and show a little more concern and method in exploring the social links of comics, but that's it. Carrier's book is not even a history book because he wrote it to try to prove the absurd thesis that the "major arts" evolve while the so-called "popular arts" never change. The books by David Kunzle: The Early Comic Strip: narrative strips and picture stories in the European broadsheet from c.1450 to 1825 (1973) and The History of The Comic Strip: The nineteenth century (1990) are an important exception. Another one is Comic Strips & Consumer Culture: 1890-1945 (2002) by Ian Gordon. Due to his love of statistics, notably in the exhibition catalog Bande Dessinée et Figuration Narrative (1967), we could say that Pierre Couperie had the potential to turn David Kunzle's and Ian Gordon's position way at the top a bit less lonely... Unfortunately his situation as a comics fan (he was a member of the Club des Bandes Dessinées and the SOCERLID) denied him the possibility to avoid hagiography. He also lacked a great reference book...

Psychology and psychoanalysis have not much of a tradition in comics scholarship, but both can also be found. I am particularly referring to four books: Seduction of the Innocent (1954) by Fredric Wertham; Tintin chez le psicanaliste (1985), Psychoanalise de la bande dessinée (1987) both by Serge Tisseron; Les spectres de la bande (1978) by Alan Rey. Donald Ault wrote the essay "" Cutting Up "Again Part II: Lacan on Barks on Lacan" in the collective and multidisciplinary book: Comics Culture: Analytical and Theoretical Approaches to Comics (2000) edited by Anne Magnusson and Hans-Christian Christiansen. This last book, published by the University of Copenhagen, is part of a very interesting series of anthologies: à la rencontre de... Jacques Tardi (1982) organized  by Jean Arrouye and Jean-Claude Faur; Bande Dessinée Récit et Modernité (1988) edited by Thierry Groensteen, with essays by: Harry Morgan, Marc Avelot, Jacques Samson (impressive!), among others... The Graphic Novel (2001) edited by Jan Baetens (who also wrote the book Formes et politique de la bande dessinée - 1998), The Language of Comics (2002) organized by Robin Varnum and Christina T. Gibbons, with essays by; Gene Kannenberg, David Kunzle, David A. Beröna, among others...

In the field of specialized academic magazines there's Crimmer's: The Harvard Journal of Pictorial Fiction and Crimmer's: The Journal of Narrative Arts (1974); Inks: Comic and Cartoon Art Studies (1994) from Ohio State University, The International Journal of Comic Art (1999) whose essays are mostly of two kinds: the disclosure of national lesser known traditions, cultural studies (interesting is the recent series about the pioneers of comics criticism). In these publications we can find essays by Arthur Asa Berger (author of a monograph on Al Capp: Li'l Abner: A Study in American Satire - 1970), Joseph Witek (who wrote Comic Books as History: The Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman and Harvey Pekar (Studies in Popular Culture) - 1989), Mike Kidson, Spiros Tsaousis, Waldomiro C. S. Vergueiro, Marc Singer, Caridad Blanco de la Cruz, Michael Rhode, John A. Lent (IJOCA's publisher and editor), Leonard Rifas, Charles Hatfield, Ole Frahm, Ana Merino, among many others...

In conclusion: comics criticism is reputed to be nonexistent. And yet...

Being a phenomenon that developed mainly during the last 40 years (not much time, of course) comics criticism cannot aspire to a corpus similar to that of "other criticisms" with older traditions. Moreover comics criticism has almost no recognition and appreciation, brings little to no social prestige to its practitioners and not much money, of course. Despite all that I hope that this text will give some idea, to those who will read it, of the huge variety and the sheer quantity of what, after all, has been done already. As I said at the beginning: from the kid who just writes what's on his mind in a fanzine to the deconstructionist texts of Ole Frham and John Ronan there's a wide vatiety in comics criticism. Sometimes it is maddeningly obtuse, it remains wedded to archaisms and infantilisms, it reveals a dismal lack of methodology, it ignores whole aspects of formal analysis (the colors, narratology, etc...), it turns its back to the subtext and the meaning, it values childish mediocre stories (full of racist and misogynist stereotypes, for instance), it's profoundly anti-intellectual. But it can also be incredibly smart and interesting. Time will separate the wheat from the chaff because, as the old adage puts it: it's not the critic who judges the work it's the work that judges the critic.


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Peter said...

Thank you for this translation, Domingos. It is hard not to despair, a bit, for a critical genre that did not come fully into the room until judgment, itself, was being ushered out the door.

When you wrote this piece, you seemed to believe that academic professionalization -- a formalization of analytical tools, languages, and approaches -- might save and raise comics criticism above the level of merely "existing." That professionalization seems to have happened, although in a somewhat weak way: the discourse of cultural studies has won the day. But I'm not sure this has pulled comics criticism (at least in America) any farther away from fannish appreciation on the one hand -- or moral/political condemnation on the other, which is sort of the same thing, in reverse.

Isabelinho said...

You're welcome, Peter! I couldn't have said it better. This text clearly needs an update, but not being an academic I can't really say what's going on. Plus: I can't cope with what's being published anymore.