Breakout Time for Comics Studies
From Saga of the Swamp Thing, by Alan Moore, 1982. Art by Stephen Bissette, John Totleben and Tatjana Wood
by Jason Dittmer
The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach,
Edited by Aaron Meskin and Roy T. Cook,
Wiley-Blackwell, 213 pp.
The Art of Comics bills itself as the “first-ever collection of essays published in English devoted to the philosophical questions raised by the art of comics”. This much-qualified claim is certainly true, and I have waited anxiously for its publication since I first learned it was in production. Aaron Meskin and Roy T. Cook, the editors of the volume, have assembled an impressive array of philosophers to comment on comics. Some of the names are familiar to those working in comics studies, others not, but all come with an impressive knowledge of comics, and none strike this reader as add-ons who are trying to think and write about comics for the first time.
The authors write largely in the tradition of aesthetics, with some overlap in metaphysics, and the editors do a fine job of introducing these concerns to the reader in their introduction. Despite all this, I finished the book with a vague sense of dissatisfaction; rather than really moving the field forward, the volume seems somewhat stuck in the past (albeit fairly recent one). The promise of a focused philosophical engagement with comics does not seem to have generated many truly new leaps forward, although many of the chapters are genuinely insightful and fascinating.
The book is divided into three sections: ‘The Nature and Kinds of Comics’, ‘Comics and Representation’, and ‘Comics and the Other Arts’. If there is a foundational flaw in this volume, it is that each of these sections maps cleanly onto one of the long-standing topics in comics studies: the definition of comics, the ‘language’ of comics (a controversial description among philosophers, apparently, but less so in comics studies), and adaptations. Despite this, the authors in the book seem strangely unaware of a lot of the work done on these topics outside of a few major authors (such as Groensteen, McCloud and Carrier, with the latter appearing in the book himself). While a fresh approach to the topics is potentially invigorating, the lack of engagement with previous work makes the debates seem like ships passing in the night. Even the introduction by the editors, which includes a literature review, limits its gaze to work that is either by philosophers or is philosophically oriented.
I should be clear that the editors and authors of this book are not alone in seeing the three debates listed above as central to comics studies. In the introduction to A Comics Studies Reader, the editors of that book describe the ongoing agenda for the field with these questions:
What are the definitional boundaries of comics? What constitutes excellence, and how is it measured? Are comics primarily a literary medium, a visual medium, or something hybrid that requires distinctive reading strategies on the part of the reader? How do the combination and juxtaposition of words and pictures work? How do comics achieve meaning, for readers, subcultures, and societies? (Heer and Worcester, 2009 – quote is abridged)
Such questions are necessary for a project like comics studies that is attempting to construct and institutionalize a distinct identity. I would like to respectfully suggest, however, that such an inward-looking agenda ignores the achievements of comics studies thus far; in short, it is time for the insights of comics studies to be brought to bear on wider debates throughout the humanities and social sciences.
From Animal Man, by Grant Morrisson, 1990. Art by Brian Bolland.
There is a great symmetry between the formal properties of comics (or graphic narrative more broadly) and contemporary network ontologies prominent in the social sciences, but this symmetry needs to be explored in the literature in order to inform future research agendas in the social sciences and humanities. Perhaps I am alone in this respect, but I would like to see a more outward looking agenda that eschews problems such as the definition of comics, how comics relate to film, and so in favour of relationships with other fields of study (e.g. Ahrens and Meteling, 2010).
Lest I be accused of being overly negative about a book that is solid in its scholarship, it is worth mentioning several of the chapters which were truly thought provoking. Many are worth mentioning, but I will restrict my praise to two that really made me think things anew. I have to confess that when I saw the title of Aaron Meskin’s chapter, ‘The Ontology of Comics’, I quailed in the face of what I imagined to be another extensive exegesis of the panel. However, the chapter surprised me with a discussion of the materialities of comics; that is, whether a comic book is, or is not, by definition a multiple of itself. If this sounds boring, I assure you it is not, and Meskin truly made me think differently about the materiality of comics. Surely this is what good philosophy is meant to do. Another excellent chapter is offered by Catherine Abell, who interrogates the meaning of authorship in comics. Although lacking engagement with some of the literature on this topic (e.g. Carpenter, 2005), Abell’s offering is impressive in its attempts to distil the nature of authorship in a medium that varies so greatly in its production processes.
To conclude, this volume has moments of grandeur but in general feels like just another edited volume on comics in an already crowded field (e.g. Varnum and Gibbons, 2001, Detora, 2009, Goggin and Hassler-Forest, 2010). This in itself is no problem, but priced at £55 (or US $ 75) it is hard to envision this book standing out from the crowd. The volume is a solid contribution, but I await the next step forward in comics studies.
Ahrens, J. & Meteling, A. (eds.) (2010) Comics and the City: Urban Space in Print, Picture and Sequence, New York and London: Continuum.
Carpenter, S., 2005. Truth Be Told: Authorship and the Creation of the Black Captain America. In J. Mclaughlin (ed.) Comics as Philosophy. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 46-62.
Detora, L. (ed.) (2009) Heroes of Film, Comics and American Culture: Essays on Real and Fictional Defenders of Home, Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland and Co.
Goggin, J. & Hassler-Forest, D. (eds.) (2010) The Rise and Reason of Comics and Graphic Literature, Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland and Co.
Heer, J. & Worcester, K. (eds.) (2009) A Comics Studies Reader, Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.
Varnum, R. & Gibbons, C. (eds.) (2001) The Language of Comics: Word and image, Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.
About the Author:
Jason Dittmer is Reader in Human Geography at University College London. He is the author of Popular Culture, Geopolitics, and Identity and Mapping the End Times: American Evangelical Geopolitics and Apocalyptic Visions.