Saturday, April 22, 2017

And Now For Something Completely Different... Yet Another Ridiculous Comics Canon

Most people couldn't care less about comics. Some people say that comics are crap. And, then, there are the fanboys.

Unfortunately the last ones are those who build the canon and that's, dear readers, why all comics canons are ridiculous.

To the penultimate I say: I hear you and I even think that, from your point of view and being in your shoes, I would say exactly the same. However, you're committing a mistake: it's the comics canon that is crap, not the art form of comics.

Below is the awful cover of a book by the Brazilian comics scholar Moacy Cirne: Quadrinhos, Sedução e Paixão [comics, seduction and passion - can you detect the fanboy in the title?...] (Vozes, 2001).

At some point the author includes his list of the best films ever created, as you can also see below.

#2 Persona
#14 Eclipse 
#18 My Darling Clementine 
#19 Brief Encounter 
#20 2001: A Space Odyssey 
#21 The Passion of Joan of Arc 
#22 Ugetsu 

The above isn't the film canon, mind you, it's just someone's list of favorite films. I could argue that some directors are sorely missing (Rossellini, Ozu), others are scarcely represented (John Ford) or are scarcely represented and not by their best film (Mizoguchi), or are overrated (Antonioni, Resnais), but anyway, if all lists are debatable what's not debatable, methinks, is that this is a great list of undeniably great films.

And now, brace yourselves please, here's Cirne's best comics list:

Do I need to say anything? Isn't the contrast between the two lists violently blatant? This is a mix of mediocre comics (The Spirit, Valentina, Sin City, Tarzan, Flash Gordon), so so entertainment (Little Nemo, Sandman, Fritz the Cat, Freak Brothers) and a couple of - sometimes - great comics (Krazy Kat, Ken Parker). Fred is one of the greats in my book, but not because of Philémon (ditto Oesterheld / Breccia with Mort Cinder even if there are a couple of great stories in the series). Others (the Brazilian ones) I have never read, I must confess, so I'll say nothing about those...

I can't be the only person on earth's surface who thinks that these "great comics" lists are ridiculous, or am I? Maybe in the comics milieu I am, but not among the others, those who rightfully scorn comics because, picture this: you are invited to dinner at someone's house and they feed you junk. What would you say afterwards? Maybe something like: "Don't go even near that place! There's nothing in there but crap!"


R. S. Martin said...

There are many different ways of arriving at a canon for a field. My preferred one is the type Sight & Sound uses for film, and which I employed for the comics poll at Hooded Utilitarian a few years back. But if I were putting a syllabus for a college course, I wouldn't go with those results. This is probably the reading list I would use for a class, at least here in North America:

Week 1: McCloud, Understanding Comics
Week 2: Newspaper humor strip selections--McCay, Little Nemo; Herriman, Krazy Kat; Schulz, Peanuts; Feiffer; Larson, The Far Side; Watterson, Calvin and Hobbes
Week 3: Adventure feature selections: Caniff, Terry and the Pirates; Siegel & Shuster, Superman; Eisner, The Spirit; Kurtzman & Wood, "Superduperman"; Lee & Kirby, Fantastic Four; Lee & Ditko, Spider-Man; Moebius, Arzach
Week 4: Pekar & Crumb, the American Splendor stories, with Crumb's solo work as an addendum
Week 5: Moore & Gibbons, Watchmen
Week 6: Gaiman, et al., The Sandman: Dream Country
Week 7: Spiegelman, Maus
Week 8: Ware, Jimmy Corrigan
Week 9: Satrapi, Persepolis
Week 10: Burns, Black Hole
Week 11: Bechdel, Fun Home
Week 12: Campbell, The Fate of the Artist
Week 13: Chast, Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Here's a film list:

W1: Battleship Potemkin
W2: The Rules of the Game
W3: Citizen Kane
W4: Rashomon
W5: Tokyo Story
W6: Pather Panchali
W7: L'avventura
W8: Breathless
W9: 8 1/2
W10: The Godfather
W11: Close-Up
W12: In the Mood for Love
W13: Mulholland Dr.

Isabelinho said...

Hi Robert! Thanks for dropping by!

First of all I must say as a disclaimer that when I call ridiculous to these comics canons I mean journalistic lists of the putative crème de la crème. A syllabus may be the same thing, but it really depends on the purpose of the course being given. If the intention is to study racist or xenophobic imagery, for instance, I hope that it wouldn't be a best of list.

Proof of what I say above is your inclusion on week one of Understanding Comics. You did it because you want your students to... well... understand comics. I would go with Groensteen's book instead, but that's just me...

On the other hand you want your students to learn something about the two American comics industries: 1) newspaper comics; 2) comic books.

Things really get interesting on week four. I guess that's where the "best of" part starts, but if you don't mind I will compare your two lists (as I did in my post), but on a new light:

Comics list: 1 Canadian; 1 French; 1 Iranian; 4 Brits; 22 Americans.

Film list: 1 Russian; 2 French; 3 Americans; 2 Japanese; 1 Indian; 2 Italian; 1 Chinese.

Whatever this says about yourself doesn't matter. What matters is that this would happen with almost everybody doing these two lists. When I say everybody I mean that a French scholar's list would be full of French and Belgian comics, etc... etc...

That said, I like your list (maybe I would do a couple of suggestions, but my personal list is the first post on this blog, so...).

Finally, a note to self: I really need to get me a copy of Roz Chast's Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

Isabelinho said...

No pun intended!

R. S. Martin said...

What I had in mind was a survey course on comics. Survey courses are what a canon is relevant to. My hypothetical class wasn't anything specialized in terms of topic, such as racist and xenophobic imagery. That would call for a very different reading list.

I'm not sure my choices reflect a nationalistic or linguistic bent on my part so much as they reflect certain things about the North American market and reading culture. These are the books that have had an impact here, and are readily available to students.

With film, a multitude of works from non-Anglophone artists have high reputations in North America (and are available), so the list of course has a more nationally diverse set of films.

Comics have problems on that front that film doesn't. For example, there are no comics from Japan on my list. It's not that Japanese comics aren't available here, but that the better authors are not easily come by. Tsuge and Taniguchi are probably the authors I would be most inclined to teach. But they're not tenable teaching choices. Apart from a handful of short pieces, Tsuge has not been translated, and those efforts aren't in print. Taniguchi has been published, but only through boutique presses, and I don't trust boutique presses' ability to keep work available on a consistent basis.

I also see a purpose of such a course as being to instill a general erudition in students. Erudition in comics in North American reading culture more or less means familiarity with the books I listed. (I emphasize I mean the general reading culture, not the comics subculture. The general reading culture couldn't care less about the Hernandezes or Steve Gerber or many other figures of subculture idolatry.) It's like if I was putting together a reading list for a survey course on contemporary Anglophone fiction. It would include Morrison, Rushdie, Munro, Roth, DeLillo, Atwood, McCarthy, Díaz, and Adichie as a matter of course in part because of the erudition factor. A more international course would likely include Murakami, Bolaño, Saramago, and Ferrante.

Discussing pedagogical attitudes. It's one way to start the day.

Isabelinho said...

A course on racist or misogynistic imagery is just an extreme case in which the list would diverge from an abstract (I called it journalistic) idea of crème de la crème, I guess, but your hypothetical syllabus isn't the same thing either. For instance, you took into consideration availability, the market, general reading habits, erudition, and a guy like Cirne couldn't care less about all that.

I agree that the three comics industries are insular. On the other hand wanting to follow your criteria above you could never teach Taniguchi or Tsuge, not because their books aren't available, but because they're under the radar of the American reading public. Availability would solve the problem? I really can't say, but I have my doubts. Cf. Tatsumi's case, available through Drawn & Quarterly.

Why are film studies different from comics studies? The main reason it seems to me is the State's support. As I usually say, there are museums and State owned Opera and concert houses, libraries and film libraries, but such institutions dedicated to comics are few and far between. Worse than that: the few that do exist don't do anything of any worth besides preserving old print.

R. S. Martin said...

If Taniguchi was published in North America by Drawn & Quarterly, he would have been given a spot. I'd have displaced Chast for The Walking Man (and supplemented the reading with Tsuge and Moto Hagio shorts) without a second thought. But I have a lot of reservations about Tatsumi's work. I have a lot of reservations about many of those I listed, but the larger acclaim they enjoy mitigates that. The acclaim, for instance, for Persepolis (perhaps the aesthetically weakest entry) far outstrips any positive discussion of Tatsumi out there.

State support? In the U. S.? State supported arts and media programs like the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and National Public Radio are under perpetual attack by the right in this country. They are all a hair's-breadth away from seeing their state support eliminated entirely. For survival's sake, they have done everything they can to minimize their dependence on government subsidies. There is no more state support for film studies and so forth than there is for comics studies.

With teaching, the willingness of a university department to offer a comics courses has nothing to do with it being state-supported or a private institution. The two most prominent comics academics in the United States are probably Hilary Chute and Charles Hatfield. Chute is at the University of Chicago, which is a private institution. Charles teaches at the University of California at Northfield, which is a state-supported school. Other academics at state-supported institutions include Qiana Whitted, Corey Creekmur, and Craig Fischer. Beyond Chute, I'm blanking on those with tenure-track appointments at the private schools.

Isabelinho said...

Yes, I know the state is shrinking all over the place being the humanities, as always, the first victims, but it wasn't always like that. Film studies and comics studies are in a completely different stage of development. A film canon doesn't have just action movies and rom coms.

Sérgio said...

I checked this podcast and because of the name, I thought instantly of your blog.

Which I found funny because they're exactly what you are completely against in comics criticism.

(Anyway, I listened to a episode and they actually aren't bad, they weren't pretending that what they were talking about was Great Art.)

Isabelinho said...

Obrigado, Sérgio! Pelo menos têm lá o Dan Clowes.