An Interview with Walter Biggins

Comics scholarship has its roots in fandom and in the efforts of freelance intellectuals such as Bill Blackbeard and Donald Phelps but in recent years has been making significant headway in the wider world of ideas. The University Press of Mississippi (UPM), by far the leading publisher of scholarly comics criticism in North America, has played no small part in this change, so it’s worth noting that acquisition editor Walter Biggins, who has crafted the publisher’s impressive comics list in recent years, is leaving his post to take up a position as senior acquisitions editor at the University of Georgia Press. Some history might be in order: UPM’s comics studies list was launched more than a quarter century ago by Seetha Srinivasan and Tom Inge. Under Srinivasan’s the press published groundbreaking work by Inge, R.C. Harvey, Joseph Witek, and others. Srinivasan retired in 2008, and the list was taken over by Walter Biggins, who had already been at the press for several years and had been acquiring books for publication even before Srinivasan’s retirement.

I’ve worked with Walter on several books, some of which I’ve co-edited and others which I’ve refereed. Watching Walter steer books into publication has been a fascinating experience because he’s an ideal acquisition editor: very knowledgeable about the field, passionate about comics not just as an academic subject but also as a living art form. I’ve sometimes regretted that he doesn’t write much comics criticism himself (although he blogs well on related topics such as film and contemporary literature). I thought the occasion of Walter’s leaving UPM might be a good time to ask him about his thoughts on comics and comics criticism. My hunch was right: Walter rewarded me with a typically meaty and substantive dialogue. (A list of the book’s Walter has acquired for UPM is appended below the interview).

Jeet Heer: I wanted to ask you about your personal history with comics. I seem to remember seeing a letter you wrote to Seth in an old issue of Palooka-ville, so my sense is that you had some interest in comics even before becoming active in the line. Is that right? And can you talk more about what sort of comics you've read over the years and have particularly liked?

Walter Biggins: I've been reading comics for as long as I can remember, probably starting with my own, as I'm an inveterate doodler who wrote (terrible) short stories in spiral notebooks, which were accompanied by (equally terrible) illustrations and typographical experiments in the margins, between the college-ruled lines, on the backs of pages, etc. In seventh grade, my life-sciences teacher marked three points off one of my exams, not because I'd gotten any of the questions wrong--I hadn't--but because I'd doodled all over the exam sheets. It pissed me off at the time but I now concede her point that the illustrations were distracting. Still, I doodle on dockets and notepads during boring meetings, to the extent that I think my colleagues believe, wrongly, that I'm not paying attention.

Where does this minor graphomania come from? I blame Sergio Aragoñes. His quick, precise line--almost like handwriting--graced the margins of all the MAD magazines I grew up on in the 1980s. Those pantomimes, so tiny that I'd now have to squint to read them, were often better than anything they surrounded. I loved Groo the Wanderer. I bought MAD paperbacks of Aragoñes's wordless comics throughout my childhood, usually at used-paperback stores. He still holds a special place in my heart, though I've not read him, or MAD, in a decade. Aragoñes introduced me to the poetry and movement of comics; MAD as a whole introduced me to the idea of using comics as a way of critiquing culture and deflating its pretensions. (Digression: My first issue, by the way, was #270, featuring a parody of a Bruce Springsteen album I'd never heard--or even heard of--which is decidedly funny, because that double album is now my favorite live record of all time, with the possible exception of The Name of This Band is Talking Heads.) So, seven or eight years before I read McCloud's Understanding Comics or Matt Feazell's Cynicalman, I was primed to see comics not just as a source of entertainment but as a critical apparatus, a lens through which I could view what the marketing world was trying to sell to me, and react to it in a manner beyond "buy! buy! buy!"

So, it's always puzzled me that parents ever thought that comics numbed children. For me, MAD comics gave me a way of filtering and critiquing culture, of not taking the advertisements for granted--including those within the pages of comic books, and the merchandising promulgated by comics archetypes, such as the racial stereotypes inherent to American comics and the hyper-masculine ethos evident in the superhero stuff I read during the ideas. (X-Men and Alpha Flight were significant exceptions here, featuring multiracial communities where whiteness wasn't necessarily dominant, but Wolverine and Cyclops were masculine types that I was never going to live up to. Nightcrawler was more my speed.) By the mid-1990s, during high school, I'd pretty much stopped reading superhero comics, and had veered hard into the b&w alternative scene, just about when Joe Matt's Peepshow #6 was featuring in a squib of Rolling Stone. I think it was called the "Hot New Comic" or something. Anyway, I bought up back issues of Peepshow, hiding them from my parents, and I've never looked back. I got a letter published in Peepshow #12, I think, praising Matt's new storyline (which became Spent) and the use of his use of the color red, but also telling him to drop the color if it would speed up his output. So, basically, I chastised him for doodling. *sigh* He printed the letter, minus my snide note.

You probably already know this but Art Spiegelman and Ivan Brunetti have spoken of the doodle as primordial unit of cartooning. This might be a good chance to talk about UPM’s comics list as a whole, since your taste in comics is very catholic, which I think is reflected in UPM’s list as well (among other topics you’ve acquired and published books about Harvey Pekar, Jack Kirby, Lynda Barry, and Osamu Tezuka, as well as the comics traditions of France, Italy, and Russia). I’ve already gone over the history and mission of UPM’s comics line in an interview with Seetha Srinivasan, but I’d like your thoughts on this. What’s your sense of the line’s purpose? Is it fair to say that it tries to the cover the full range of global comics?

Walter: I hadn't heard of Spiegelman mentioning this but I'm quite familiar with Brunetti's thoughts on line and doodle, having read Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice, and having tried and failed to complete the course offered by the book. (I'll probably try again but with a workshop group of like-minded souls. Maybe that'll keep me on task!) The line is a central element in comics because it can (and does) suggest everything in the form--smell, visuality, the demarcation between image and word (after all, what is a speech balloon, pictorially, but a curved line?), motion. Even now, the non-comics visual art that I tend to like emphasizes the line over, say, chiaroscuro or color shading. That's not a value judgment, by the way, but merely a statement of my perhaps limited tastes.

In terms of UPM's line, it's a great question. When we began publishing in comics studies, over 20 years ago, the emphasis was clearly biographical and art-historical--i.e., placing the cartoonists and their work in socio-historical context. That's probably because that largely hadn't been done, and thus there was a need to establish a lineage, a tradition of comics that interacted with, and departed from, the worlds of literature and "high" art. Even in the "Great Comics Artists" series that I established, the monographs therein have a strong element of critical biography.

What has changed under my tenure is twofold. First, I think I've placed a stronger emphasis on comics theory and grammar--i.e., "What is a comic, exactly?" "What are its core elements, and the 'rules' for using them?" "What is comics as a form, and how is that distinct from other art forms, including those (literature and painting) with which it is forever linked?" My acquisitions have been largely concerned as much with global issues about comics--its production, its form, its grammar, and the discourse around all this--as they are about specific comics and cartoonists. This theoretical bent is in keeping with a more European school of comics criticism, which is more concerned with form than with history. This is all very odd to me, by the way, as I have absolutely no formal training in critical theory and what I know of it has been gleaned from my readings for the press and from, of course, MAD magazine. Anyway, Thierry Groensteen's Comics and Narration, Jean-Paul Gabilliet's Of Comics and Men, Hannah Miodrag's forthcoming Comics and Language, and Elisabeth El Refaie's Autobiographical Comics are all (pardon the pun) big-picture, macroscopic books rather than close analyses of a single cartoonist or set of works.

(And note that, in keeping with the European-leaning, "I'm a hippie socialist" tendencies, that none of the aforementioned authors are American.)

The second shift is a corollary of the first, and you've already touched on it: country-specific studies. I think it's important to broaden comics studies--be it aesthetic, historical, or theoretical--beyond a U.S.-centric sense of the art form. From Joel Vessel's Drawing France to José Alaniz's Komiks: Comics Art in Russia, I hope I've helped in some small way in introducing international output to American audiences. This isn't exactly comics-related but I'm really excited about Gigi Hu and Masao Yokota's forthcoming edited collection, Japanese Animation: East Asian Perspectives, not so much because it's about anime (a well-mined subject in the discourse) but because the scholars are East Asian and approach from a more informed, lived-in perspective that I think Western scholars can lack. That book is an extension of the internationally focused work that I tried to bring to UPM.

And I guess there's a third shift, though this one's more accidental. Over the last 4-5 years, we've produced several books--Gabilliet, A Comics Studies Reader, the forthcoming The Superhero Reader--that are intended specifically as course books, as foundational texts of comics studies from which scholars can branch outward. That's been exciting, and perhaps our most consistent sellers in the field.

I agree that the main trends of the UPM line under your watch has been internationalization, greater theoretical sophistication, and a move to define the field of comics studies through textbooks. I’m wondering about some of the implications of these changes. In the early days of comics scholarship, a lot of groundbreaking work was done by independent scholars not really affiliated with any academic institution (I’m thinking here of Bill Blackbeard and R.C. Harvey, who has done a number of books with UPM). Is there still room for that sort of independent scholarship or has the field really shifted deeply into the academy and theory?

I liken comics studies to where film studies was in the 1970s and 1980s--cool and edgy in some precincts, a trivializing affront to the ivory tower in others, and lacking cohesion in part because there wasn't an agreed-upon framework for criticism or even a relatively agreed-upon canon. It's like scholars, in and out of the university, are flying blind, and as a result constructing multiple versions of comics' lineage, with some overlap but also a lot of dissension.

So, for the foreseeable future, I think comics studies will feature a mix of independent obsessives and those affiliated with the academy. The independent scholars often are the ones who actually know the most about both comics and comics scholarship. I can't tell you how often, even now, I receive proposals from a dutiful, earnest English professor about "this canonical work called Persepolis" or about "Chris Ware, the one true master of the form," or from equally earnest grad students who haven't read--or even heard of--any comics criticism other than McCloud's Understanding Comics. What the academy does have going for it that independent scholars largely do not (though this is improving) is rigorous standards regarding how scholarship is done, how archiving is accomplished, how citations and sources can be determined as trustworthy (or not). Regarding comics studies, there's a certain naïveté in the academy, but among the indies there's an equally problematic clan mentality and fandom that often confuses enthusiasm for scholarship.

To change this paradigm, the territory needs to better defined. We need a canon. We need agreed-upon terminology--a Strunk & White or Chicago Manual of Style for comics criticism, if you will. And then, once we have that, we need that framework to be established in universities more prominently than it is now. In short, we need comics studies departments and graduate programs. Right now, the field, as it exists in the academy, is folded into English, sociology, history, and art history departments. Academic scholars come from all over the place, which indicates that there is enthusiasm for the discipline (that's good!) but which also means that the studies are using a scattershot array of critical frameworks that often move at conflicting purposes and with some mutually exclusive methodologies (that's bad!). Until there are comics studies departments established more readily in colleges, and there's an established canon and critical methodology, the academy will need the Bill Blackbeards, Bob Harveys, Jeet Heers, Trina Robbinses, Bob Levinses, and Paul Gravetts of the world. I think we're a decade away from such programs being normalized.

Even then, the indie scholars and archivists--and let's remember that it's largely through them that we have any original source material to work with--will often have a place in comics scholarship, simply because they are good writers who have lots of archival material (original art, interviews, newspaper collections, etc.) that would be otherwise inaccessible. But they'll need to learn how to apply rigorous critical demands to their work and, in doing so, will debunk some of the many mythologies that have built up about comics production.

The comparison to film scholarship is very suggestive. I wonder if, growing out of the issues you mentioned, comics scholarship doesn't suffer from the lack of big theories that can give the needed framework. Whatever you want to say about the auteur theory, it was a useful heuristic devise which could be both deployed and argued against. What do you think is missing in comics scholarship in terms of subject matter. Who are the cartoonists that need to be analyzed more (or the cartooning traditions that need reviving).

Film and comics are intriguing, in that the means of production--printing, typesetting, color separation--are intrinsically linked to the art itself. Here's what I mean: Whether you publish The Thin Red Line in 12-pt. Times New Roman or 36-pt. Comic Sans Serif (because you, in this case, are apparently evil), whether it's an e-book or printed on aged goatskin, the text remains The Thin Red Line. James Jones's novel remains intact even with all these production variables; they do not fundamentally change the artwork itself. This, however, is not true in comics or film. I've seen Terrence Malick's film adaptation of The Thin Red Line on a fuzzy VHS version but then viewed it projected in a pristine 35mm print, on a big screen, and it's literally like watching two different movies. Any newspaper cartoonist can tell you horror stories of botched print jobs, and clueless typesetting that diminishes (or omits altogether, as happened early in Charles M. Schulz's run of Peanuts) the experience of the art. With film and comics, both mass-produced arts, there are lots of moving parts that lie outside of the cartoonist's control that ultimately affect the art itself.

So, it seems that auteur theory was necessary in film studies, in that it provided an overarching framework--even if you disagreed with it, as did Pauline Kael and several other critics--to, metaphorically, hang your hat on. It allowed for the acknowledgment of, and analysis of, a singular vision, extracted from an art that necessarily is made ultimately by hundreds of people, and that thus was unwieldy in terms of how to discuss critically. Comics studies certainly has its own version of auteurism, in that (in the U.S., at least) the criticism and study is very tied around a single cartoonist's vision, often to the detriment of the historical and publishing contexts that aided and abetted him.

And it is mostly a "him" in comics, and that's been one of the core flaws in comics studies so far--a decided lack of concentration on women's contributions to comics' aesthetics, production, and editing. Quick example: For all the attention paid to Art Spiegelman and the founding of RAW as a launching pad for alt-comics, there's been almost no serious attention paid to Francoise Mouly, Spiegelman's wife and RAW co-founder, despite the fact that she's been The New Yorker's art director for over a decade. Her editorial guidance shaped RAW, and her use of cartoonists in The New Yorker's pages and on its covers has introduced a generation of cartoonists to the broader mainstream. As an editor, Mouly has been instrumental in shaping the "literary" comics, just as Diana Schutz has been absolutely key in shaping the "creator-owned" indies of the 1980s and 1990s. (We don't have Paul Chadwick or, ironically, the hyper-masculine Dave Sim and Frank Miller, without her.) But, because comics scholarship is male-centered and auteurist-driven, industry-specific studies and/or contextual studies--i.e., ones in which women might serve a larger role in comics' history--are woefully under-served.

So that's a gap. There's also a major gap in the exploration of work by nonwhite cartoonists, American or otherwise. The traditions of South American countries, African countries, and southern Asian countries are basically virgin territory in the academy. John Lent's International Journal of Comic Art has done yeoman's work here but, in monographs and edited collections, much, much more needs to be done.

Your point about how production and content are linked in comics raises the issue of how production and content are linked in comics scholarship. One thing that I've noticed is that in the last few years UPM has substantially improved the physical look of the books they do on comics (I'm curious if that's also the case with the books on other subjects like film). The early UPM titles in the comics line were fairly standard looking academic books but the more recent volumes -- the volume The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing Is a Way of Thinking is perhaps a good example -- really do justice the subject by being handsomely and appropriately designed books. How did this change happen?

Mostly, this just happened as UPM's designers got more familiar with the terrain. Pete Halverson, John Langston, and Todd Lape--UPM's production/design team--are all superb book designers, and I'd like to think that looking at the comics (and comics is, let's remember, an art of design as well as of drawing) inspired them to, as best as possible, emulate the work being discussed. Also, as our comics studies line grew in prominence, cartoonists wanted to be associated with it. I think it's a (small) point of honor for a cartoonist to have her work considered seriously, and so artists such as Chris Ware, Dave Sim, Lynda Barry, and Daniel Clowes have all been willing to let us use their art (including sketches and rarely seen pieces) within the books and also on the covers. That flexibility has, in turn, allowed our designers to strut their stuff. Chris Ware, in particular, has been extraordinary generous, and has designed several book covers for us for free or for complimentary copies of the published book. He doesn't have to do that, and his prestige is such that he could demand much more from us, so we've been incredibly grateful for that collaboration.

The truth is, though, comics design in general has just improved dramatically over the last 10 years, across the board. The archival collections published by Fantagraphics (Peanuts, Krazy Kat, Pogo, the various EC Comics and Ditko lines), Drawn & Quarterly (the Moomin and John Stanley lines are particularly gorgeous and insightful), and IDW have raised the bar for everyone

Any thoughts about the future for yourself, UPM, and comics scholarship at large? Will you be able to acquire comics related works at your new position in Georgia? Will UPM's commitment to comics scholarship continue? And how is the field changing now that other publishers (notably Yale and Bloomsbury) are dipping their toes into comics scholarship?

UPM's commitment to comics scholarship is firm. Over the next year or two, the press will publish monographs of Winsor McCay, an English-language edition (from the French) of Thierry Smolderen's The Origins of Comics, and an English-language edition (from the Spanish) of Santiago Garcia's The Graphic Novel, among others. I hope comics studies will remain a flagship at Mississippi. Popular culture--with comics as a key emphasis--is one of the biggest, most dynamic, and best-selling parts of Mississippi's academic list, so I expect it will continue unabated.

The publishing terrain's looking rich for comics studies, though mostly what I'm seeing in the university press world is one-off projects rather than sustained interest in the field. Ohio State University Press is a notable exception, having recently established a new series devoted to comics studies. (This isn't exactly a brag, but it's worth noting that the first book in that series is written by a previous UPM author, working on similar territory that he explored with us in his edited collection.) I've heard that Rutgers University Press has started a comics series but I haven't seen anything emerge from it yet, though it has published projects on comics sporadically. Bloomsbury consistently does interesting work in this area--some scholarly, some more general-interest--and this looks to be a growing field for that press.

In some ways, what I'm most excited about are, as I mentioned earlier, the archival and recovery projects. There are so many gaps in our understanding of what's been drawn and produced that our sense of comics' history is limited. These new printings--especially those published by Fantagraphics, D&Q, IDW, and Sunday Press Books--feature the best reproduction, and among the best scholarly apparatuses, that I've seen yet. One of my favorite books of all-time is Sundays with Walt and Skeezix, which introduced me to Frank King's Gasoline Alley at its appropriate size (super-big!) and which featured several great essays that helped me comprehend King's achievement, his times, and the newspaper world more fully than I would have in any other format. What Abrams is doing with their art catalogs/monographs on single artists (Daniel Clowes, Jaime Hernandez) and Dan Nadel's edited collections of "lost" cartoonists is nothing short of amazing. These sorts of recovery projects serve both aesthetic and academic functions.

In terms of my own stuff, my acquisitions at Georgia will be largely in African American, Caribbean studies, studies of the black Atlantic and its diaspora, and international relations. I hope to introduce to Georgia the idea of popular culture as a lens through which to view southern studies and diaspora studies, but I'm unsure how much of that will involve comics directly. (Media studies and cultural studies may well play a bigger role.) In some ways, that'll be a blessing. Keeping up on comics scholarship has had the unfortunate side effect of weakening my desire to keep up with comics, and weakening my ability to read them with unadulterated pleasure. This, I suppose, is part of the reason I didn't pursue grad school in English or comparative literature--I didn't want my love of literature and my own writing to be diminished by literature becoming mere drudgery. I got into comics-studies editing partly by accident, having taken over a strong existing list from an outgoing editor. That doesn't mean that I'm uninterested in comics studies but I resist becoming known as "the comics guy," as I've always acquired in other fields--some of which interest me far more than comics scholarship. Over the last 2-3 years, especially, comics studies has taken over more and more of my everyday acquisitions, and it'll be nice to step back and reflect, instead of being in the midst of it. So, the short answer is: Who knows?

list of comics studies books acquired, 2007-2013

** --forthcoming

Alan Moore: Conversations

Edited by Eric Berlatsky (Department of English, Florida Atlantic University; Boca Raton, FL)
Conversations with Comic Artists Series

Autobiographical Comics: Life Writing in Pictures
by Elisabeth El Refaie (School of English, Communication, and Philosophy, Cardiff University; Cardiff, Wales, United Kingdom)

**Comics and Language: Reimagining Critical Discourse on the Form
by Hannah Miodrag (Department of English, University of Leicester; Leicester, United Kingdom)

Comics and Narration
by Thierry Groensteen (independent scholar; Brussels, Belgium)

Comics and the U.S. South

Edited by Brannon Costello (Department of English, Louisiana State University; Baton Rouge, LA) and Qiana Whitted (Department of English, University of South Carolina; Columbia, SC)

The Comics of Chris Ware: Drawing Is a Way of Thinking
, edited by David Ball (Dept. of English, Dickinson College) and Martha Kuhlman (Dept. of Comparative Literature, Bryant University)

Dave Sim: Conversations

Edited by Eric Hoffman (independent scholar; Vernon, CT) and Dominick Grace (Department of English, Brescia University College; London, Ontario)
Conversations with Comic Artists Series

Drawing France: French Comics and the Republic
by Joel Vessels (Department of History, Nassau Community College)

Drawn and Dangerous: Italian Comics of the 1970s and 1980s

by Simone Castaldi (Department of Modern Languages, Hofstra University)

God of Comics: Osamu Tezuka and the Creation of Post-World War II Manga
by Natsu Onoda Power (Dept. of Performing Arts, Georgetown University)
Great Comics Artists Series

Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics

by Marc Singer (Department of English, Howard University; Washington, DC)
Great Comics Artists Series

Hand of Fire: The Comics Art of Jack Kirby by Charles Hatfield (Department of English, California State University at Northridge)

Harvey Pekar: Conversations
, edited by Michael Rhode

History and Politics in French-Language Comics and Graphic Novels
, edited by Mark McKinney (Department of French, Miami University)

Howard Chaykin: Conversations

Edited by Brannon Costello (Department of English, Louisiana State University; Baton Rouge, Louisiana)
Conversations with Comic Artists Series

Komiks: Comic Art in Russia
by José Alaniz (Dept. of Slavic Languages & Literatures, University of Washington at Seattle)

Lynda Barry: Girlhood through the Looking Glass
by Susan Kirtley (Dept. of English, Portland State University)
Great Comics Artists Series

My Life with Charlie Brown
by Charles M. Schulz, edited by M. Thomas Inge (Blackwell Professor of Humanities, Randolph-Macon College; Ashland, VA)

Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books
by Jean-Paul Gabilliet (Dept. of American Studies, University of Bordeaux), translated from the French by Bart Beaty (Dept. of Communication, University of Calgary) and Nick Nguyen (archivist, Library and Archives Canada)

**The Origins of Comics: From William Hogarth to Winsor McCay
by Thierry Smolderen (Department of Visual Arts, École Européene Supérieure de l’Image; Angoulême, France)
Originally published in French by Les Impressions Nouvelles in 2009

The Rise of the American Comics Artist: Creators and Contexts

edited by Paul Williams (School of Humanities, University of Plymouth; Exeter, United Kingdom) and James Lyons (School of Arts, Languages & Literatures, University of Exeter; Exeter, United Kingdom)

The Superhero Reader
, edited by Jeet Heer (doctoral candidate at York University, Toronto), Kent Worcester (Professor of Political Science at Marymount Manhattan College), and Charles Hatfield (Associate Professor of English at California State University, Northridge)

We Go Pogo: Walt Kelly, Politics, and American Satire by Kerry Soper (Department of Humanities, Classics, and Comparative Literature, Brigham Young University; Provo, UT)
Great Comics Artists Series

Will Eisner: Conversations

Edited by M. Thomas Inge (Blackwell Professor of Humanities, Randolph-Macon College; Ashland, VA)
Conversations with Comic Artists Series