Assistant Professor of Science & Social Science at Columbus College of Art & Design
As a comics creator, researcher, and teacher, I think of my work less as providing answers and more as honing questions. In this essay, I follow a trail of them, namely: Who are we to study comics and make claims to the ways that people inhabit this social world?
What follows is a brief hike through an ecosystem of articles, authors, and questions. I will follow this trail of considerations to help us climb towards the above questions, leading to a hopeful meeting of the minds. An origin from which to start other conversations – leading to my related ICAF presentation in April 2021.
. . .
Since I started researching comics in 2005, the field has vastly expanded. With regular monographs and edited volumes, journals like The Journal of Graphic Novels & Comics and INKS, and platforms like The Middle Spaces and SOLRAD, it’s a fruitful time for Comics Studies.
Yet, we remain constrained by the contexts in which the field grew. Comics scholarship continues to stumble through justifications of the form as literature and art (Groensteen 2009). As Katherine Roeder notes, scholars associate the medium with children’s literature or a “taint of commercialism” (5). Despite the importance of these elements for making a living in comics, we seem more invested in literary work framed as by and for adults.
A crux of this tension is the graphic novel. As Julia Round notes, the term arose as an adaptation to shifting audiences (2010). However, Catherine Labio highlights its difficult legacy: “‘Graphic novel’ sanitizes comics; strengthens the distinction between high and low, major and minor; and reinforces the ongoing ghettoization of works deemed unworthy of critical attention…” (126). Accordingly, using this term uncritically risks perpetuating power dynamics by affirming class-based aesthetics of ‘serious’ work.
This investment in high-brow stumbling blocks grows from rooting analysis in disciplines that take labor for granted. Brenna Clarke Gray and Peter Wilkins point to this dynamic when describing the erasure of collaboration: “Each contributor to the comic erases and replaces part of what the prior contributor has produced, so that instead of the work of a singular genius, a palimpsest of contributions takes over, a work built on the ruination and supplanting of the contributors’ roles. And yet, in spite of these clear acts of erasure and collective responsibility, fans and scholars fail to recognize this subtlety and nuance in favor of a comforting Romantic model of creativity…” (118). The aesthetics that shaped our education, especially as literary scholars dominate Comics Studies, shape the ways we know and analyze.
If we value authorial skill, we see it; if we value community, we see differently. We should shift our gaze to see that what we took for a forest of stories is a garden carefully cultivated by myriad producers.
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We face a crossroads like that of contemporary folklorists, who center communities of study in response to the field’s legacies. In “Folklore’s Crisis” (1998), Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett notes “Our scholarship and teaching, the practices of academics, are not prior to the political implications and practical applications of our work. They are constitutive of them” (311). Scholars often take for granted that our field is a mode of cultural production that enshrines certain forms, works, creators, and industries.
While Charles Hatfield (2010) and others have highlighted comics’ interdisciplinarity, we risk losing sight of not only what comics are in their social worlds, but also the impact of our work on them. Turning to creators can take us down a path to the heart of comics’ ecosystem.
Casey Brienza provides a framework for applying the production of culture to comics labor. She points out that focusing on a single product or individual can blind us to comics’ social life as “…embedded simultaneously in a myriad of global, local, and transnational contexts” (116). Similarly, Benjamin Woo guides us through a consideration of comics as a media industry where “[M]aking comics is not merely a labor of love, but also plain old labor” (60). Centering production shows its influence on every aspect of comics worlds – and, often, how creators are exploited by romantic notions of work drawn from scholarship.
Each time we take another step in Comics Studies, scholars transform and maintain a social ecosystem. We shape peoples’ lives and livelihoods. So, ‘Who are we to ask questions?’ is not meant to have an easy answer. But the process of working towards one seems central to our work.
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Other fields can provide guidance. – With the reflexive turn in anthropology, Behar argued for vulnerability, or the integration of subjectivities into scholarship (1997). This shift responded to indigenous and feminist critiques by emphasizing how each scholar shapes their work. Similarly, comics scholars ought to make our labor visible. For instance, how are we socially and personally implicated? How do our aesthetics shape our methods? Answering these questions can help situate our claims to comics worlds.
We, as scholars, are part of larger industries, whether we recognize it or not. In contextualizing her work on documentary comics, Mickwitz points out that “[H]owever much there are academics reluctant to consider themselves as contributors to extant hierarchies and those whose work actively engages in challenging such values and structures, the academe is intrinsically and institutionally implicated in such hierarchies” (2016, p. 3). We are each situated within – and often complicit in maintaining - power structures.
We should not step into comics as if exploring a new ecology – but with care for all the people already living in these spaces. We ought to approach those making a livelihood in comics not as celebrities, subjects, or even consultants – but as experts and inhabitants of creative worlds. We as scholars work within existing social structures, and we cannot feign ignorance of them. As Clarke Grey notes of fellow scholars claiming not to recognize lack of representation in professional opportunities, not knowing is not good enough (2016). We know better.
As such, it is our obligation to not only highlight hierarchies but upend them. In “‘I AM (not) FROM BEYOND!’ – Situating Scholarship & the Writing ‘I’”, Osvaldo Oyola describes how the autoethnographic methods of feminist and black criticism provide a model for doing so. In particular, he argues that “Making our self and the story of our work part of the work is a way to remain self-critiquing” (2018). Including the personal in the academic can help us situate our work and ourselves within the systemic inequalities that shape both – and work to directly undermine them.
And so we return to my question – Who are we to lay claim to comics worlds? Or, perhaps a better question would be: – How do we live up to the communities for and with whom we do our work?
Behar, Ruth. The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that Breaks Your Heart. Beacon Press, 1997.
Brienza, Casey. “Producing Comics Culture: A Sociological Approach to the Study of Comics.” Journal of Graphic Novels & Comics, Vol. 1, No. 2 (December 2010), pp. 105-119.
Clarke Gray, Brenna & Peter Wilkins. “The Case of the Missing Author: Toward an Anatomy of Collaboration in Comics.” Cultures of Comics Work, edited by Casey Brienza & Paddy Johnston. Palgrave Studies in Comics & Graphic Novels, 2016, pp. 115-129.
Clarke Gray, Brenna. “The Unbearable Blind Spots of Comics Scholarship.” The Comics Grid: Journal of Comics Scholarship, Vol. 6, 2016, p. 11. URL: https://www.comicsgrid.com/article/10.16995/cg.86/
Groensteen, Thierry. “Why Are Comics Still in Search of Cultural Legitimization?” A Comics Studies Reader, edited by Kent Worcester & Jeet Heer. Jackson: The University Press of Mississippi, 2009, pp. 3-11.
Hatfield, Charles. “Indiscipline, or, The Condition of Comics Studies.” Transatlantica, Vol. 1, 2010. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/4933
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. “Folkore’s Crisis.” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 111, No. 441 (Summer 1998), pp. 281-327.
Labio, Catherine. “What’s in a Name? The Academic Study of Comics and the ‘Graphic Novel.’” Cinema Journal, Vol. 50, No. 3 (Spring 2011), pp. 123-126.
Mickwitz, Nina. Documentary Comics: Graphic Truth-Telling in a Skeptical Age. Palgrave Macmillan, 2016.
Oyola, Osvaldo. “‘I AM (not) FROM BEYOND!’ – Situating Scholarship & the Writing ‘I’.” The Middle Spaces, 25 December 2018, https://themiddlespaces.com/2018/12/25/year-end-meta-2018/
Roeder, Katherine. “Looking High & Low at Comic Art.” American Art, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Spring 2008), pp. 2-9.
Round, Julia. “’Is This a Book?’ DC Vertigo & the Redefinition of Comics in the 1990s.” The Rise of the American Comics Artist: Creators & Their Contexts, edited by Paul Williams & James Lyons. University of Mississippi Press, 2010, pp. 14-29.
Woo, Benjamin. “Erasing the Line between Labor & Leisure: Creative Work in the Comics World.” Performing Labor in the Media Industries, editor Kate Fortmueller. Spectator, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Fall 2015), pp. 57-64.
Dr. Jeremy Stoll (he/they) is a comics creator, scholar, and Assistant Professor of Science & Social Science at Columbus College of Art & Design. Stoll’s scholarship has appeared in The International Journal of Comic Art; Marg, A Magazine of the Arts; Cultures of Comics Work; and The Routledge Companion to Comics. He is also committed to visual storytelling on the ineffable in life - with recent work in Rainbow Reflections: Body Image Comics for Queer Men.
Due to the ongoing pandemic crisis, ICAF was forced to cancel its events at the 2020 Small Press Expo. Over the next 16 weeks (give or take), we will be publishing