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CharlesWHatfield
Interests: Comics, film studies, academia, a ton of other things. Ask Craig about Buffalo and about punk. Ask Charles about art rock and being an Air Force "brat." Etc.
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PS. In the show tour clip, Part 2, note Williams' description of process, in which he calls his under-painting or under-drawing "comic book drawing." Also, he refers to his "exclamatory" paintings as cartoons.
Hey, great to hear from that "guy"! The WWW works wonders, eh? Seriously, thanks for weighing in. It's good to be able to make our anecdotes more personal, and I appreciate the links. Folks, I highly recommend following both those links. The first shows Williams giving a talk in the exhibition gallery; he's a bit more sedate, or a bit less wound up, than he ended up being during his Burkhardt lecture, but it's fresh, insightful stuff. (Favorite line: "I'm straining to keep down the profanity...") The second is a visual riff (cool) based on the audio track of Williams' interview on Molly Barnes' radio show "Art News." This show is on the campus station KCSN, 88.5 FM (as I mention above, Barnes introduced Williams' Burkhardt lecture). Sketch V, I bet you're a deeper, more experienced Williams fan than me; my tastes in underground comix have tended to run toward the Green/Kominsky/Crumb confessional autobio axis. Y'know, angst and sensitivity. But I am learning my Williams!
Patrick, great to see your comments here. Thanks for checking out the blog and filling in some gaps for me! Much appreciated. Glad to "hear" your voice again, after too long a gap. Hope you're well, and doing stuff you like doing. I nicked the portrait photo up top from the Williams bio on the FB website. Didn't realize it was yours! (Cue red-faced embarrassment here.) I'll revise the post to give you photographer's credit straight away. Was that really as long ago as, uh, twelve years? Wow. I'm afraid I haven't been to Reading Frenzy (yet); my trips to Portland have been rare and brief. But the profile and history on their website makes me want to visit (http://www.readingfrenzy.com). I first met Williams, briefly, at the 2003 UF conference on undergrounds, where John Ronan introduced him as his favorite of the underground comic book artists. Williams came to the Gary Panter talk at Pasadena City College just a few days ago. I hope to get to describe that one on TB as well, my crazy schedule permitting.
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Mar 15, 2010
Flatterer. :)
Mark, delighted to see your comment here! Thanks for weighing in. You said, "Jack really didn't care about fancy drawing, or even story in the character plotted out sitting discussing things, but in the flow of energy from panel to panel. I think that's why so many of his comics hover two steps away from abstraction." I like this insight very much. That line about "the flow of energy" seems to match up nicely with Andrei's notion of "sequential dynamism." I have to say, though, that I believe Kirby really did care about "story"; for him, the flow of energy had to be dictated, or had to subserve, a plot or concept that he was determined to get across. At least I believe this is what he would have told himself. As he once said (see his interview with Ben Schwartz), "I've been writing all along and I've been doing it with pictures." Now, it may be that it was the abstract flow of energy as much as anything that dictated his plots -- perhaps he didn't recognize the extent to which his storytelling was driven by his desire to draw -- but I still imagine that, when pressed, he would have always said that story was paramount. Some of his admirers might not see the work that way, but Kirby was very traditional about seeing comics as pictorial storytelling (which is why those few samples of his private, non-comics art, his collages, paintings, and so forth, are so tantalizing!). I think of Kirby's comments about his work (usually related to his characters and concepts) in contrast to those of, say, his protege Steranko, who often talks about bringing Pop Art and Op Art and other influences into comic books, but seldom talks about narrative content. Telling, I think. "I don't think you can capture that kind of kinetics on a page by typing in panel descriptions, the more I see of full script comics the more I realize how they lead to "bad" comics because they prevent you from reaching that state of flow." This I would be tempted to agree with. That is why so few contemporary mainstream comics appeal to me. The level of craftsmanship may be very high, but (a) the text and images are not working in concert, not really; and (b) the drawings, so often photorealistic these days, are constrained and staid and graphically dull. Sometimes the splash pages make for great single images -- like a gorgeous book cover -- but the actual narrative drawing is lifeless. I also agree with your point about abstract comics helping to recover what is Kirby-esque about Kirby's work, as opposed to the way mainstream comics keep mechanically beating away at Kirby's bankable concepts.
Toggle Commented Feb 16, 2010 on Abstract Comics at THOUGHT BALLOONISTS
The Ware connection is interesting, and I wouldn't be surprised if "Murder the Story" was a grain of inspiration there. But what Ware does in "I Guess" (a.k.a. "Thrilling Adventure Stories") is a more controlled and subtler act of sustained image/text counterpoint, really a prolonged act of insinuation rather than a freewheeling riff on existing images. Ware, after all, made up the images specifically to match his text, or conceived them both at once perhaps. "Murder the Story" is closer to a kind of nonstop comic riffing a la "MST3K." I'm struck by the ways in which the most recent ACME (No. 19) is a more elaborate riff on the techniques first essayed in "I Guess." The review in TCJ #300 implies as much, that Ware has once again used the tools of escapism to question or wound the escapist impulse. Don't know if I love ACME #19 or hate it!
The Ware connection is interesting, and I wouldn't be surprised if "Murder the Story" was a grain of inspiration there. But what Ware does in "I Guess" (a.k.a. "Thrilling Adventure Stories") is a more controlled and subtler act of sustained image/text counterpoint, really a prolonged act of insinuation rather than a freewheeling riff on existing images. Ware, after all, made up the images specifically to match his text, or conceived them both at once perhaps. "Murder the Story" is closer to a kind of nonstop comic riffing a la "MST3K." I'm struck by the ways in which the most recent ACME (No. 19) is a more elaborate riff on the techniques first essayed in "I Guess." The review in TCJ #300 implies as much, that Ware has once again used the tools of escapism to question or wound the escapist impulse. Don't know if I love ACME #19 or hate it!
Craig, I like this a lot; you've given me extra incentive to pick up, finally, belatedly, this book, despite its lacunae and unexplained teases. I also like (and confess to being influenced by, for example in my jhw3 post) your use of links, which is so often playful and unpredictable. I especially appreciated the link to Henry Jenkins' take on the Hoberman. I confess that, due I suppose to the deification of Kurtzman in comics culture, I had expected an art book about him simply to retail things we already know about him, and to repeat the critical line about Kurtzman of which Spiegelman and Crumb's tributes are probably the best-known examples. Despite having read Kitchen on Kurtzman before, including the very good article in COMIC ART, I had grown a bit weary of the subject (fatique from my work on underground comix, I guess), and so, despite intending to pick up the book, I haven't so far. But now I want to add it to my embarrassingly long list of things I need to get and read. Your post is focused and asks specific, pointed questions, which I also appreciate. Thanks!
"I'm surprised that you (Charlie) seem to think they don't riff on one another exquisitely (I think I read the Savage Critic piece you linked to--I didn't follow your link--and if I recall, he does a nice job of articulating just how synergistically the story and art blend)." Hey, Jog lavished loving attention on the artwork and then said, in essence, that the total result was just "good" because the superheroing in it was standard stuff. I think I was actually more complimentary in that dept. that Jog! Dig his closing comments: "Rucka is a skilled writer, but so far here he's neither deep nor subtle... Because the writing and the art run close, one can't pass the other by much, and to me there's always some dissatisfaction. I'd still call it GOOD, though folks more tolerant than me of some blunt, familiar genre mechanics will rank it higher, I'm sure." Nyeh!
Toggle Commented Dec 7, 2009 on Son of Steranko at THOUGHT BALLOONISTS
Joseph: "Anyhoo, stop dissing Final Crisis. The art was definitely a bummer in some of the issues, &, no doubt, had it been drawn by someone of jhw3rd's ability it would have been a lot better (Morrison just NEEDS a great artist, doesn't he?), but it's still an amazingly subversive piece of superheroing, especially for an 'event' book." You dig FC, I know, because it reads like an experimental narrative disguised as a mainstream crossover book: an exercise in Burroughs' cut-up technique. And I don't dig FC so much, because I think it reads like...an exercise in Burroughs' cut-up technique! Care to have a TB throwdown on this some day? You could be a guest blogger, man. Consider it, so you can tweak my reasoning at greater length. :) I would agree, BTW, that Morrison gets inspired by good artists and that there's a world of difference between what he does with someone like jhw3 and someone like, well, whoever's drawing though B&R issues now (ick). "...the Gaiman conclusion is sort of a non-Morrison cheat, but, hey, they're cool issues" Difficult admission: I *hated* that Gaiman two-parter. The first part was tantalizing, but the second was navel-gazing, self-referencing, inwardly-spiraling, self-justifying twaddle (unusual for me to be so vituperative about a Gaiman book, but there you go). And the self-conscious positioning of that story as an analogue to the Moore/Swan/et al. "Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?" was just silly. No comparison: the Moore was a much cooler piece of self-referencing, inwardly-spiraling etc... :)
Toggle Commented Dec 7, 2009 on Son of Steranko at THOUGHT BALLOONISTS
Thanks, Duncan! Glad you liked it. Slow that I am, I didn't realize that Jog had posted on Williams a few weeks back. Always a pleasure to read what he has to say. I especially liked his focus on early and comparatively obscure examples of jhw3's work. And, hey, a McCay riff in a superhero comic is always welcome. :) The extent to which Seven Soldiers owed its pizzazz (if not coherence) to jhw3 was made apparent to me by Final Crisis. :(
Toggle Commented Nov 26, 2009 on Son of Steranko at THOUGHT BALLOONISTS
Awesome post, Craig, a veritable basketful of links, suggestions, resources, observations. I've read it through twice now, first without your links, just to get the flow of argument, then again with plenty of link-clicking, just so I can follow the lateral connections you're making. I like your emphasis on the way Bazinian staging in deep focus (with its corollaries: density of visual detail, freedom of perceptual choice, and ambiguity of expression) has a temporal as well as spatial dimension. You point out that deep focus not only is a way of thinking about pictorial space but also is a technique dependent on time, that is, on the (barring video freeze-frame) ceaseless flow of time in a film and how this affects the spectator. So often I've heard the debate between Bazinian depth and Eisensteinian montage explained as a dynamic between "space" and "time" (with Bazin linked to notions of pictorial space, Eisenstein et al. to notions of film as a "language" of statements unfolding in time). But you show here, most usefully, that the full apprehension of Bazinian deep focus also depends on time, that indeed Bazin's prized ambiguity is dependent on the spectator's lack of control over timing, over the speed with which the film/viewing apparatus depicts time. Your point about the simplicity of Tezuka's early staging (if indeed staging is the right word for comics) is also intriguing. The filmstrip-like sequence from Metropolis, above, is almost schematic in its simplicity, its use of one-point perspective. The later work shows a much greater richness. (I find the gestures toward cinema in early Tezuka so self-conscious as to be almost distracting, in the same way that I'm distracted by the use in comics of fragmented sound bites, sound cuts, soundbridges, etc.) BTW, I don't buy McCloud's "masking effect" theory, or at least the larger psychological underpinnings of same. I don't think simplicity in drawing results in the sort of absolute psychological identification McCloud claims, or at least I wouldn't put the argument in such stark terms.
Toggle Commented Nov 5, 2009 on Deep Tezuka at THOUGHT BALLOONISTS
Phil, thanks for the feedback, and for building a bridge between your scholarship and what I'm trying to accomplish here. I agree with you that greater self-awareness in terms of framing/contextualizing our research is needed in order to address points 2 and 3. Your underlying argument, that the field's nature and current state of development call for more carefully situated work, is very important IMO!
You're welcome, Phil! A pleasure to see you again and to have the benefit of your scholarship, curiosity, and enthusiasm. Take care!
The International Comic Arts Forum (ICAF) invites you to its 14th Annual meeting, which will be held Oct.15-17 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, with programming at the SAIC Ballroom (Thur-Fri) and the Siskel Film Center (Sat). ICAF, an academic summit for those who want to think deeply about comics and cartooning, started in Washington D.C. in 1995 and is one of the leading scholarly events devoted to the art form. Besides papers and panels aplenty -- with presenters from Canada, Norway, Belgium, Germany, Italy, India, and Japan as well as the USA -- this year’s ICAF program includes sessions with guest artists Guy Davis, Max and Pere Joan (both from Spain), John Miers, and Sara Varon. This event is free and open to all. For more info, see http://www.internationalcomicartsforum.org.
Toggle Commented Oct 5, 2009 on Recommended events at Printers Row
Adrielle, thanks once again for your thought-provoking commentary. I like your suggestions re: national organizations federating to create a larger international exchange. I particularly like the idea of an annual (or at least regular, i.e., biennial or triennial at the least) international event hosted by different national or multinational organizations on a rotating basis. I'm thinking about how the IAWIS (International Assoc. for Word and Image Studies) holds its international conference every three years but various other allied or related events take place more frequently. But the most important issue raised in your comment, I think, is the question of how to build interdisciplinary comics studies degree programs on a local level. I agree that that's likely to be a very difficult task. In my case, at CSU Northridge, I'm the only faculty member, to my knowledge, to teach courses in comics on an annual basis (English 333: Comics and Graphic Novels, a survey course I founded but that in theory other faculty could teach as well; I also teach other courses in which comics play an occasional part, and last spring I taught my first grad seminar in comics studies). However, there was a History class taught last year, I believe it was a senior-level proseminar, about the history of American comic books, taught by someone who I'm afraid I haven't met yet (I'm working on that). And I know faculty in Art and in Cinema and Television Arts who are interested in the subject, enough so to send students my way. :) Also, the Head of the Japanese section of our Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures Dept. teaches courses in modern Japanese culture that include anime and manga and has sometimes guest-lectured on manga in my comics survey. So I've got some connections with fellow faculty here (bearing in mind that CSUN is a large university with 30K+ students and thousands of faculty and staff). I've discussed with the Chair of the Art Dept. the prospect of team-teaching a combined theory and studio class (Art and English) in comics, and he was interested, though both of us foundered when it came to figuring out who the ideal population for such a course would be and whether students from different majors would have the right skill sets to get on well in the course. I've learned from practical dealings (not only about comics) that creating those ideal interdisciplinary partnership programs is a cussedly difficult matter that has as much to do with territoriality, competition for student enrollment, and pragmatic considerations as it has to do with disciplinarity specialization per se. But I still think it's the best way to go with comics studies. One thing to consider is that some of the courses that might benefit a student in comics studies might not be comics-centered. For example, courses in publishing and book history, textuality, modern and postmodern art history, popular culture, etc., while not specifically related to comics, could serve as elective or even required courses in an interdepartmental comics studies minor, with the proviso that students enrolled in them could pitch their term projects, etc., in the direction of comics. And one course in a minor, perhaps a capstone, might be a thesis or creative project that need not be housed in a particular department but could be arranged with a member or members of the comics studies faculty cohort. What this might require is, say, three faculty members with a vested interest in comics studies and a bunch of others willing to have students pursue individualized comics research in their seminars. Outside readers might also be considered for senior/thesis projects. I do agree that the likelihood of finding several comics studies specialists at one college or university is small; it seems likely that some of the essential scaffolding for a minor (or major) would have to be laid by one or two faculty, in a small cluster of required core courses. If courses relevant to -- not necessarily specific to -- comics could be found in other departments, including perhaps some foundational Art History courses, etc., these might be used to supplement the core comics courses, thus to enrich the program. In my college, minors are typically 18 to 21 units (six to seven standard 3-unit courses), of which we could expect, say, 12 units at least to be required as opposed to electives. Me, I'd say we'd need at least three solid comics courses to constitute the core of a minor, one on form and aesthetics (as you said, comics qua comics), one offering a comparative study of different national traditions from a cultural studies POV (sort of an overview of the world map of comics, talking about issues of popularity, marketing, legitimacy, canonization, comics literacy, etc.), and at least one requiring focus in a specific genre and/or historical period. Three or four other elective courses could serve to complement this core, courses that are not necessarily comics-centric, and a 3-unit thesis/project requirement with prospective directors pulled from three or four departments would be ideal. Mind you, I'm thinking of a minor here. A major would something much more involved. Given that it has taken five-plus years to get my comics survey course permanently added to the catalog (entrenched, legitimized, known, etc.), I have to believe that larger programmatic goals would take even longer. There is no easy way, sigh, to do these things. I believe that we're going to have to seek strategic alliances with, e.g., new media studies, visual rhetoric, cultural sudies to get comics studies started, to find the sympathetic faculty needed, to find enough courses to sustain degree programs. I'm sorry to say that I don't see this kind of thing happening readily at institutions that are not large enough to support the needed faculty. This is where consortia of multiple institutions might have to come into play, though of course some interested institutions might be so widely separated geographically as to make such partnerships impracticable. :( Would you be interested in joining a discussion here, as a guest co-blogger sometime, re: the very challenges of creating academic degree programs in comics studies? (I see that you and I will probably meet soon at ICAF 2009!)
Mark, thank you for the much-needed reminder regarding the IBDS! I'm sorry I overlooked it in my post, of course. Even sorrier that I have not yet had an opportunity to attend an IBDS conference (something I hope to change soon). I may want to go back and add to the above an update re: IBDS and its relationship to the ECA journal. Certainly I'd like to talk to you more about the following, which I find very promising: "The IBDS could at least partially serve as a model for the type of organization you're describing, and could perhaps also be affiliated, as a sister or member organization in a larger federation." Yes, and yes. I'd love to see a North American comics studies association that could partner with IBDS in order to build international ties in our field. Thanks for the thought!
Craig, excellent analysis of the limitations (or blind spots) of the sexual libertarian position, as well as the fallacy of the male/female symmetry of Bougie's argument, i.e., the idea that substituting a woman for a man in the S/M scenario should yield the same reaction, an assumption that doesn't hold water given the disproportionate abuse of women in our culture. To me there seems to be something almost counter-phobic about the desire to expose oneself to the extremes of what is representable. I have the same problem with horror films along the extreme torture/voyeurism axis. This is not to deny that horror has its way of circumventing the conventional and the superego and plugging into the unconscious in a powerful, bracing, sometimes even life-enhancing way. But the intellectual arguments made for extreme horror (where verisimilar ultraviolence reigns), as for other body genres such as hardcore S/M porn, always seem to pale besides the sheer visceral kick, licit or not, of the stuff. Not for me, thanks. And this just killed me: "Nigga please! Fuck that sexist shit!" Aside from the fact that the argument does not convince, the appeal to postmodern minstrelsy here, via the N-word, is lame. Gambits like these seem like tests, or opportunities for the reader to demonstrate his/her (but in this case surely his) liberality: do I object, or do I show my degree of cool by not objecting? Your honor, I object. BTW, is it just me, or is there some echo of Bob Fingerman in Bougie's style and self-caricature?
Thanks, Craig! I appreciate your comments re: essayistic criticism and your positing of a "middle ground" that brings together academics and (Kent's phrase) freelance intellectuals. I agree: clear, lucid, sophisticated criticism in non-academic (or non-exclusive) venues can be enormously valuable, and of course deeply pleasurable to read and discuss. And I'm glad to have you counter Ben's characterization of contemporary film studies. My point all along has been, not to dismiss or place a derogatory asterisk next to non-academic work, but to insist that there are professional needs that academics have that must be dealt with by academics for academics: e.g., to develop academic programs in comics studies; to mentor students and introduce them to the field; to leverage institutional resources, such as funding and library resources; to set up networks for the purpose of peer review; to establish refereed forums, such as journals and conferences, that will be recognized and supported academically; to open up opportunities for professional service that will be duly acknowledged and rewarded academically; to communicate the nature and importance of comics studies across academia; etc. This has nothing to do with ruling out of court the work of freelance, or unaffiliated, or non-academic, intellectuals. It has to do with a basic rhetorical understanding: that academics, as Kent says, have an obligation to be taken seriously by other academics. This has implications for how, where, and under what circumstances academic work is to be presented, and how academics are to venture into that "middle ground." Speaking personally, I'd call myself an academic, a fan, and an occasional would-be essayistic critic (heh), or freelancer in any case, and I see all these roles as distinct yet complementary. That's not to say that these roles do not overlap in my experience, or that I don't use things I've learned in one sphere to help me in another; but I believe that the work I'm doing academically needs to cleave to academic standards and be seen in academic venues. BTW, I think your point about the difference in scope between essayistic and academic criticism is right on. Academic work may and sometimes must proceed on other terms. Obviously, I disagree with Groth's contention that "academia doesn't cultivate unique voices that have distinctive perceptions of the work they scrutinize"; I think that line reflects a misunderstanding of the nature and potential of "theory" and paints too mechanistic a picture of academia.
Eric, I agree with your point that "comics’ multidisciplinarity...is a strength...since it allows comics to occupy many places intellectually and institutionally. Therefore comics studies can exist without having an official 'home.'" Of course the lack of an official home could also be construed as a weakness, and does pose organizational challenges. I think the situation we're in right now entails thinking about ways to make that putative weakness into an actual strength. What we're going to need is an intentional model of interdisciplinarity, what Adrielle (above) calls "a cohesive set of precepts" for multidisciplinary work. I'd like to see the formation of an interdisciplinary and international professional association that includes caucuses or discussion groups drawn up on disciplinary lines as well as annual events (e.g., symposia) of an explicitly interdisciplinary nature, focused on common topics. Conferences could be organized so as to facilitate interdisciplinary collaboration, while also allowing disciplinary caucuses to focus on issues of specific disciplinary concern.
Adrielle, thank you very much for this stimulating and from my POV very helpful response! In particular, your contributions re: multidisciplinarity and how to implement interdepartmental programs are thought-provoking and IMO important. I agree with you that interdisciplinary programs such as (I take these examples from my own school, CSU Northridge) Women's and Gender Studies, Queer Studies, American Indian Studies, and Asian-American Studies are the best model here. I myself tend to invoke the Medieval Studies program at my alma mater, UConn, to explain the point: that program, as it says on its webpage (http://www.medievalstudies.uconn.edu/ is the URL), works as follows: >> The Departments of Art and Art History, English, History, Modern and Classical Languages, Music, and Philosophy cooperate in the program. Students take courses in three cooperating departments, with a major emphasis in one department or departmental area.<< I believe this kind of model would work best for comics studies in most cases (depending on the institution, of course) because it would allow for truly interdisciplinary study while avoiding the costly and needless reproduction of bureaucratic structures and services already in place. I fully agree with your critique of the notion of disciplines. My forthcoming article in Transatlantica, which is titled "Indiscipline, or, The Condition of Comics Studies," is devoted to this very question. I look forward to that coming out and I hope you and I will continue dialoging after you've had a chance to read it. In closing, you said, "I think it IS possible to have a cohesive set of precepts for multidisciplinary programs; these precepts would be built on the very intersectionality, debate and continual reshaping which marks their nature," and I want to underline that passage with fluorescent highlighter! The nature of that intersectionality is exactly what I think we need to be debating and articulating, going forward.
Kent, thanks so much for your considered response. First off, I would say that "A Comics Studies Reader" is a fine book and a marvelous classroom text. It is thoroughly professional in approach, with an eye toward facilitating teaching. It introduces key texts and debates in several different but complementary areas. Its introduction is excellent, a de facto roadmap to major questions in the field. It takes a rounded, informed, multidisciplinary view of comics, but with admirable focus, conciseness, and editorial finesse. In short, I think it sets a high standard. It also happens to be an excellent companion to your and Jeet's earlier "Arguing Comics," which is, as I see it, essentially an academic compilation of mostly non-academic work that predates the rise of Cultural Studies. What makes AC academic is its provenance and its way of focusing the issues. However, it is not "exclusively" academic, and could provide readers outside of the academy with a helpful sense of context. You said, "I realize that Charles agrees that folks like Groth and Seldes are worth reading, but his piece doesn't make it sufficiently clear that non-academics have a vital contribution to make to comics studies." I thought I'd made that clear, but in hindsight I believe the point is obscured by the fact that my post is, essentially, a polemical attempt at intervening in academic discussion. I did write the piece for an academic audience, and it was (and is) my intention to elicit commentary specifically from academics. In that sense the piece is unlike most of my TB posts. I'm not trying to play the Status Game here vis-a-vis freelance intellectuals and cultural critics, and I emphatically would not make the case that academic contributions to comics studies are the only important ones. I believe good critical writing should be valued wherever it comes from; I also believe that academics have (though they have often neglected this) an obligation to seek clarity and directness in communication. Academia is a moving, shifting target, not monolithic in style or outlook, and I am one of those academics who would like to see fewer examples of imitative theorizing and obscurantism, more attention to clear, forthright, and forceful writing, and a greater effort to gloss specialized concepts for the benefit of non-academic readers (to say nothing of our students!). But I do think that, as you say, "academics have an obligation to be taken seriously by other academics." I contend that academic comics study has a way to go in that regard. The bottom line is that cultural criticism and scholarship, whether academically affiliated or not, need to achieve escape velocity from fandom and need to cleave to the practice of peer review and honest self-examination. That is, if comics studies is to be taken seriously as a scholarly endeavor.
Ben, thanks for your question, which I think is an excellent one, one that cuts right to the heart of what I'm talking about. In fact it's a question Craig and I have often discussed, and will probably keep on discussing. :) You asked, "Is a comics discourse that excludes say, Gary Groth, or Bill Blackbeard what one should be shooting for?" Emphatically not, but I don't think that's the issue here. I think the issue is that academics studying comics have to frame their research questions, adopt their methodologies, and present their findings in terms that are comprehensible to other academics and held up to peer review. That doesn't mean that they have to fall into the trap of insularity. FORGIVE ME WHILE I GO ON A BIT HERE: As I've said, I would never claim that critical discourse about comics must always be academic in nature, or that non-academic work has had no value. Case in point: The Comics Journal has changed my life. Seriously. I doubt I would be doing the work I do today without the singular example of TCJ to goad me toward looking more closely, thinking more critically, and asking more important questions about comics. TCJ has had many academic contributors but is, by nature and by choice, not an academic publication. I wouldn't change that if I could. But TCJ does not deal routinely with the kind of things I needed to deal with when writing my book on alternative comics, nor the kinds of things that concern me now as an academic. Another case in point: Blackbeard's lifelong work as archivist and historian is hugely important, among the most important scholarly projects ever in American comics studies. Without Blackbeard's archiving of comic strips, for example, our access to and understanding of vintage strips would be much, much poorer. Blackbeard's collection is a great gift to our field, the kind of gift without which it might be difficult to say that we have a field. Scholars are now making use of what Blackbeard preserved in order to ask kinds of research questions Blackbeard has never asked. Which is exactly what such resources are for. But the major questions facing academics who want to make comics study an acknowledged, professionally significant part of their work include: How can I present my work in such a way that disinterested academics will find value and inspiration in it? How can I go about understanding the ways comics are connected to larger cultural, historical, artistic, and theoretical concerns? How can I be sure that the things I've read and heard repeated ad infinitum in fan lore are actually accurate? How can I use academic and institutional resources to corroborate and enrich my work, to move beyond lore to genuine historiography? (An example of this challenge is the study of the anti-comics campaign of the 1950s, study that has been hampered in American fan discourse by a shroud of misinformation, half-truths, distortions, and defensive posturing.) How can I gain a warrant for teaching this material on a regular basis, so as to spread knowledge about comics? I have to say that, as an academic, I've read my share of turgid, uncommunicative, downright impenetrable writing. I understand where those characterizations come from. But I have difficulty accepting the idea that academic discourse that cleaves to academic standards must by its nature be "completely insular." Knowledge production sure as hell isn't limited to academia, but academics do make knowledge according to what are supposed to be firm standards, particularly the standard of peer review. That's still lacking in academic comics study, and that lack is hampering the further growth and legitimization of the project. IMO comics scholars in academia need to face the fact that their primary audiences are fellow academics and students, and that this obliges them to go beyond fan resources and to make connections with diverse centers of knowledge. BTW, any academic studying the American comics scene who does not follow what Groth and Blackbeard are doing and have done is guilty of not doing his/her homework. Academics have an obligation to pursue these non-academic sources of knowledge!
As a follow-up to Phil, I want to say that I think placing comics within larger cultural and theoretical contexts makes them more interesting and makes our scholarship more urgent. Again to use the example of Miller, knowing Miller's invocations of European and Japanese cartoonists, his indebtedness to film noir, his worship of crime fiction, his participation in debates regarding "free speech" versus "censorship," his often contentious (though dependent) relationships with both the mainstream comic book industry and the film industry, and the cachet that his name currently has with people outside the comics industry are all important things for understanding how, e.g., Miller frames sex, sexuality, and gender in his comics. To represent these issues well, we would probably have to have recourse to criticism regarding European BD and Japanese manga, among other topics. At the least, we would have to acknowledge Miller's invocation of non-US comics within a US publishing context, and how this invocation helped cement Miller's auteur status (cf. Ronin). We would also have to acknowledge Miller's opinions on the high/low culture debates within comics, his criticism of or resistance to the gentrification or consecration of comics "as literature," and his very black-and-white, Manichean reading of the anti-comics campaigns of the 1950s, which of course brings us to larger debates about the role and alleged effects of mass culture in that period. I think an examination of misogyny in Miller would be an excellent research topic, but the research would certainly have to go further than the most readily available fan resources re: Miller, at least by way of introduction, contextualization, and literature review. And, no, I don't think one ought to teach a class on American comic books without at least referencing, by way of introduction, that there are other ways of doing comics, other formats, other genres, other reading cultures. At the least, I think American comic books ought to be contextualized in terms of the rest of the comics world, even if it's only briefly in the course of an introductory lecture or presentation. I believe the specificity of the comic book medium is better illustrated by comparative/contrastive invocation of other forms of comics. This incidentally is a question I struggle with routinely in teaching my annual "Comics & Graphic Novels" class, as I try, first, to sketch out the contours of the larger world of comics, then to bring the course down to a level of specificity and focus that actually makes it manageable. As a result of this struggle, my class contains what may seem like some odd detours, but I'm in favor of that if it helps students frame what they're doing historically and culturally.