Online tweets/posts/etc. about comics (or any subject, really) often seem like futile skirmishes in an unwinnable war. Each critic takes a narrow position and holds that territory, refusing to grant any validity to divergent arguments. Isn’t it possible, especially when talking about art, that different and even contradictory interpretations can be equally valid, that a short comic strip, for example, can communicate its meanings (if that’s ever the right word to use when talking about art) in opposing ways? In other words, isn't it possible that a comic can simultaneously express X and Not X, with both interpretive camps being right? I think so.
Recently, James Sturm’s online strip “The Sponsor” (read it here) has generated a lot of commentary that takes the form of “It clearly can mean only X.” Making no effort to look for evidence that complicates or undermines their claims, these writers lack "interpretive sympathy": they fail to identify with readers whose experiences lead them to very different conclusions. They also overlook a basic fact about reading comics: one element — a line of dialogue, a facial expression, a subtitle — can simultaneously suggest numerous interpretations.
Below are fourteen responses to “The Sponsor." While writing each, I tried to imagine what it was about the comic that would lead a critic to view this reading as the “correct” one. When I first read the strip, it seemed fairly transparent in its message (which is never the right word to use when talking about art). But now I’m unsure that my initial response was anything like “true” or “accurate.” (Doubt can be a positive interpretive approach.)
As of today, I don’t agree with all — or even most of the claims — I make below. But trying to understand each as I was writing it — to act for a moment as if it were true — was instructive. To me at least.
1. The comic is explicitly about gender; to say otherwise is to ignore the fact that only the male characters have the “problem” referred to in the subtitle. The young male cartoonist has an older male sponsor and neither can cope with the fact that a women — especially a young woman — is far more successful than they are. The comic replays the anxiety rampant among patriarchal males who, in the democratic internet-era, must confront the fact that they are becoming dinosaurs, that they no longer control things: everyone has access to “the means of production.” The comic and its author explicitly mock insecure males, especially those who fail to embrace new technologies. Many readers neglect the fact that the subtitle tells us that it is men who need to seek help.
2. Gender is not the focus here. The comic portrays the common emotion/response of jealousy. Though the particular vocation depicted is cartooning, to think the comic is only relevant to cartoonists or males or male cartoonists is naïve; it applies to all people and professions. While the jealous characters are male, reading the comic as making as a specific point about gender — about men and “male nature” — is needlessly restrictive. This position requires us to assume that women and girls do not frequently envy successful females and males, which, you know, they do. In Alcoholics Anonymous, sponsors are usually the same gender as those they work with: while it’s not required, it is strongly recommended. And a sponsor must have his/her own sponsor. This is why the “problem” cartoonists in the strip are the same gender. Readers are jumping to conclusions before thinking through the comic’s premise.
3. The author’s views are clearly the older character’s views. Like the main character, he is a cartoonist and teacher. Online, people have suggested that the author has voiced negative views like this. The comic, then, is just another male whining aloud about women: it looks exactly like something we have seen a million times before, going back centuries. And if the author didn’t want the “this comic is hostile to women” reaction, he would have switched up the genders. And he wouldn’t have made the main character so much like himself in terms of age, gender, and profession.
4. The comic is the comic and the author is author: they are not the same thing. What he may or may not have said in public is irrelevant. We do art a disservice when we think it must be an exact reflection of the author’s views. So often a work of art is smarter and more interesting than its creator.
5. Many readers refer to the comic’s two male characters, but they forget the third male, Ron — the sponsor’s sponsor — who’s mentioned only in the last panel. By naming a third generation of hostile male cartoonists, the comic makes it clear that the problem of male power and resentment is long-running and ongoing: this is how it has been and will be. The comic shows that, in a capitalist patriarchy, the power differential always works in the male’s favor. It’s built into the system.
6. Are you sure? The power in the comic is fully in the hands of the female cartoonist, Tessa. She has the monetary capital — $350,000 is a ton of cash — and she has the cultural capital — her comic is being released by Drawn & Quarterly, one of North America’s two most important and prestigious comics publishers. The power differential clearly favors her and cartoonists like her, who embrace new ways of raising money and have more access to publishing opportunities. He is the past — She is the future.
7. The comic sympathizes with all of its characters, even while it mocks some of them. The “gender war” is not in the comic, but outside of it, in the reader. Trained by the internet to be hostile and simplistic, readers impose their agenda on a comic: “It means what I say it means. All other reactions are wrong.” For the sake of argument, let’s say the cartoonist is hostile to young female creators who have had more success than he has; isn’t is possible that he can mock himself for those views? People are complicated, you know. Sometimes they make fun of themselves, aware that their values are silly and wrongheaded.
8. I haven’t seen anyone talk about the comic’s artwork. When trying to interpret this or any other comic, we need to focus on the visual elements. To interpret a comic without addressing the art is like writing a restaurant review that ignores the food and just talks about the service. We must take into account the totality of the work, especially the drawing choices. Look at the way the author draws the male characters; they are tired, distressed, and at times even hysterical. Since he draws the eldest — and most patriarchal — male as a bitter, ugly old man, he clearly wants us to view him as the comic’s villain: this approach to moral physiognomy is a staple of cartooning.
Yet ... maybe the author draws him this way because he wants us to sympathize with the sponsor as someone who devoted his life to the endlessly wearying but noble task of helping — or “sponsoring” — younger cartoonists, as the author has. Now I’m confused.
9. Like so many established male cartoonists, this cartoonist is hostile to webcomics and the internet, which has helped many young artists — especially females — publish and profit from their work. The older male is unambiguous about his position when he refers to online material as “crap.” But wait a second ... This comic is also an online comic. Does the writer think his own online comic is crap, or only other people’s (females’?) online comics? Now I’m confused. Is this comic some kind of hoax? Why are we spending so much time talking about it when Chris Ware has an online strip at the Guardian?
10. The comic fails because it simplistically and inartistically equates cartooning with alcoholism, two completely different things. By calling the comic “The Sponsor,” the author treats the process of recovery from an addiction glibly — and he doesn’t explore the premise in any meaningful way; it’s just a facile gag. But, let me think about this for a second ... given that so many cartoonists have talked about the difficulties of their life and profession, describing how the compulsion to draw makes them feel as if they’re chained to the drawing board with back and hand problems, how their social life continually suffers, all of the disappointment and rejection, etc. maybe an addiction/disease like alcoholism is the perfect analogy for life as a cartoonist. Maybe it’s not that the author treats alcoholism glibly, but that he takes cartooning seriously . . .
11. The comic never equates cartooning with alcoholism. It equates jealousy with alcoholism, an important distinction, showing that intense envy can have a debilitating, disease-like effect. But more importantly, most people are completely misreading the comic’s tone, taking it way too seriously. Look at the opening scene. It’s clearly a parody of the Made-for-TV schlock approach to “serious issues”: “Honey, I have to go! ... Casey’s in trouble.” Ha! And the sponsor runs to Casey’s rescue at a coffee shop (the preferred hangout of failed artists) at night and in the rain! Whenever a crappy movie wants to amp up the drama, it sets the scene at night and in the rain. The comic’s author is mocking his characters for taking themselves so super-seriously. I don’t get that readers can’t see this: are they all tone-deaf? Do they want to be offended? The whole setup is an obvious parody. Of course, if readers take themselves and their opinions super-seriously (which sometimes happens on the internet), they’ll miss that they are being made fun of, too.
12. The comic does not equate alcoholism with either cartooning or jealousy — it compares them. It’s a metaphor, a conceit. When Lucilla writes, “He is a flower, blossoming,” she is not saying he is the same as a flower in every way, that boy and plant are objectively equal. She is poetically observing that he has some of a flower’s traits. He is like a flower — which, if you think about it a little, hints at the fact that he must be unlike one in some ways, too. Literalism is the enemy of interpretation.
13. The comic is not successful because it allows for too many — and often contradictory — readings. The cartoonist is clearly not in control of his material. He tried to do in one page something that required a few pages, if not many more.
14. Perhaps the comic is successful, or at least possibly interesting, because it allows for, even encourages, so many all-over-the-map interpretations. It allows each of us to see in it what we want to see — and perhaps even what we need to see. Is this comic good or bad, who knows? That’s up to you. But Art, both good and bad, can’t be reduced to a clear-cut, easy-to-express “position.” And some readers take this reductive, deadening approach to interpretation.
Whether we want it to or not, Art defeats paraphrase.
Ken Parille is editor of The Daniel Clowes Reader: A Critical Edition of Ghost World and Other Stories, with Essays, Interviews, and Annotations. He teaches at East Carolina University and is the author of 50 Essential Guitar Lessons.