Monday, July 22, 2013

When Worlds Collide

The incredibly incompetent, incredibly ugly drawing you see above (by Terry Fowler) is on the cover of the Journal of Popular Culture Volume V, Summer 1971, which includes an "In-Depth" section titled: "The Comics." The Journal of Popular Culture was first published in 1967 at Bowling Green State University. The first editor was Ray B. Brown. In 1971 he was still in charge.

Arthur Berger opens said section with "Comics as Culture." It's a defense of comics and a defense of the inclusion of comics studies in academia that may seem superfluous today (is it, really, though?), but was quite welcome back then in 1971. Among other things he wanted to disprove two misconceptions: all social strata read comics; comics evolve accompanying the changing times. I'm sympathetic with both views and I believe them to be true. The problem with Berger's approach is that he didn't really engage the material (in a cultural studies context I don't mean the comics themselves only - even if wrongheadedly, in my humble opinion, he does that a little -, I mean: production contexts; real readers and their readings - not hypothetical ones; cultural hegemony - who says what?; etc...). Berger's defense of the uses of comics for escapism, voyeurism, etc... even if typical of early American cultural studies, seems more an attack than a defense to me, but maybe that's just me... His conclusions seem hurried and weakly grounded. Had  superhero comics really changed that much by 1971? Was the (173) "old, infantile superhero" really forgotten? Groundless generalizations and dichotomies like the one saying that high art is against science and progress, despite citing Pop Art along with comics as (176) "reflect[ing] a basic confidence in man's ability to dominate the forces of technology and industrialization" is poor scholarship in my book. Berger's essay ending has some historical relevance now, though (177): "The University of Rome has an extensive collection of comics and perhaps a dozen books have been published in Italy, in the past five or ten years on comics - with particular attention to American ones. There is also a good deal of work in France, Germany, and England on our comics.
And now, thanks in part to the youth rebellion and the various counter culture movements going on, and to a sudden curiosity about the significance of many aspects of our daily life which we have tended to take for granted, we are beginning to mine our own treasures. It's about time." What's interesting in the above quote is that Arthur Berger stressed the importance of youth culture for a renewed interest in comics. That said, what's strange is that he didn't write a word about underground comics. Maybe he wasn't as up to date as all that, after all... or... it was a conscious attitude typical of every sociological view: if it isn't mass consumed it doesn't exist.

Edward Sagarin wrote "The Deviant in the Comic Strip: The Case History of Barney Google." Of this one the less said, the better. Remember when I wrote below "critical discourse can be more or less nomadic, but it must never lose sight of the work being criticized (coastal shipping)[.]" Well this is an essay about zoophilia, not Barney Google, the comic strip. It's also curious that when I read "Google" in there it wasn't Barney Google that came immediately to my mind; it was a certain search engine we all know about instead...

Wolfgang Max Faust (with tech assistance from R. Baird Shuman) wrote "Comics and How to Read Them." It's a close reading of the cover, by Carmine Infantino, of Action Comics # 368 (wrongly described as a title page), dated October 1968. The close reading is decent enough, but it ultimately fails because Max Faust completely ignores what a Mort Weisinger cover is. Faust's essay is proof that, at this early stage of comics studies, the world of academia and the world of comics subculture were too far apart... Either that or being a German before such a globalized world as we live in today didn't help Max Faust to get his facts straight.

J. Eduard Mira wrote "Notes on a Comparative Analysis of American and Spanish Comic Books." The poor English (and a few typos) doesn't help, but, in the same way as Faust, mentioned above, Mira knew next to nothing about American comics. He relied on secondary sources but, even so, he made some preposterous claims. Here're a couple of examples: "[the comic strip] started to appear in its modern form in the 1910's;""[in Spanish comics of the 1940s, I guess, but it's not very clear] We do not find slum children (like "Skippy")." That last one is not completely wrong if Mira meant "Skippy," the series by Percy Crosby; it's wrong if he meant Skippy, the character.
But, anyway, Mira, a graduate from Bowling Green State University, a native of Valencia, Spain, did have some interesting things to say about Spain's 20th century history, culture, and comics. He wasn't as fascinated by mass culture as his American colleagues (he saw perfectly well how cliché-ridden and conservative it really is) and, even if he also criticized European culture as passé and decadent, he was right on the mark when he wrote (219): "The young European is still to a large extent a traditional being and this attachment to old forms of thought makes it difficult to develop something fresh and completely renewing as some of the independent comics are, unless a serious attempt at revision of the medium for communication is operated. Happily, this seems to be the trend among the more progressive sectors of young European artists." I wonder who he meant? Enric Sió?
Finally, a question: why are panels from Brazilian comics illustrating an essay about North American and Spanish comics?

The editors of this supposedly in-depth look at comics saved the best, by far, for last (is it a coincidence though?... I wonder?... The alignment goes as follows: first the male Americans, then the male foreigners - the Teutonic before the Latin -, and then... at the bottom... the women). Free of the fanboy disease, women were the best comics critics in 1971. Maybe they still are...

Phyllis R. Klotman wrote "Racial Stereotypes in Hard Core Pornography" and Joan Zlotnick wrote "The Medium is the Message, Or Is It?: A Study of Nathanael West's Comic Strip Novel." There's not much to be said about Klotman's essay. She analyses the content of a few Tijuana Bibles that include black characters in the diegesis (both sexually active and sexually passive) to describe racist stereotypes and white men centered ideologies re. race, gender and sexual performance. I find it very important that someone pointed out these issues in a public forum (even if this public forum was inside the ivory tower). You may say that the Tijuana Bibles are an easy target (they are), but so is Hergé's Tintin in the Congo and a Belgian court of justice ruled that Hergé didn't want to incite racial hatred. Neither do these playful satirical porn eight-pagers (a problem in Klotman's point of view is that she never acknowledges the Tijuana Bibles' narrative tone), but by perpetuating racial stereotyping perpetuating race hatred is what these filthy publications de facto do. The problem, as I see it, is that Klotman published her essay in 1971 and the Belgian court ruled in 2012. Is Europe forty years late?... Because I repeatedly continue to see a denial attitude in European writers re. these matters... The excuse that these are just caricatures doesn't hold water at all...

Joan Zlotnik didn't write about comics, of course. Nonetheless she wrote some of the most interesting phrases about commercial comics. (The problem is that she seemed not to conceive any other kind; she calls Lynd Ward's work "wordless novels" and Max Ernst's "collage novels;" this is perfectly fine - as we know because we now use the expression "graphic novel," but I, for one, view graphic novels inside the comics corpus; I very much doubt that Zlotnik would agree with that). An example of her essay's tone (238): "Alongside the Milquetoasts [Giggs and Barney Google] grew up the equally absurd supermasculine comic strip heroes like Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Prince Valiant, and Dick Tracy. The seeming repositories of masculinity in the comic strip culture of emasculation, the kind of men women fantasize about after having castrated their own husbands, they were succeeded in later years by Superman, Batman, and Captain Marvel." This isn't exactly a sophisticated Feminist reading, but it is a lot better than fans gushing and drooling.

To sum this 42 year delayed review up:

These essays are what I would expect them to be from such a source, but, then again, not entirely: on the negative side, the authors ignore the primary texts (the reprint industry was far from being what it is today) failing to engage with the material. This means that, with the exception of Phyllis Klotman, their evaluative synthesis were done without any previous analysis. Martin Barker denounced these proceedings in his great book Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics. Needless to say that formal analysis was out of the question (even for Klotman). The writers talk about comics dealing with the superficial content alone. Their perceptions aren't even that sophisticated lacking in theoretical grounding. On the positive side I always thought that early academics interested in comics were almost fans (see below). These few examples helped me to form a more nuanced idea. Maybe there was some of that, but mainly I think that it is safe to conclude that Gramsci and the Frankfurt School still had some traction among academics. (Women especially, I'm tempted to say, but this is too small a corpus to drive any conclusions.) I'm all in favor of a more sophisticated view of readers, but I refuse to jump to the other side of the fence saying that there's no text in the classroom. There is and, sometimes, there's no use pretending that the elephant in front of our eyes doesn't exist...


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