We're pleased to share the following excerpt from Breaking the Frames, the new book by Marc Singer and the University of Texas Press.
Excerpted from Breaking the Frames by Marc Singer. Copyright 2019 by Marc Singer. Published in January by University of Texas Press. All rights reserved.
The temptation is to give in to hyperbole: A strange dispute rocked the world of comics in the spring of 2015! In fact, the quarrel was as typical and as ephemeral as the texts that provoked it. Harvard University history professor Jill Lepore wrote “Looking at Female Superheroes with Ten-Year-Old Boys,” a column for the New Yorker in which, with the help of her youngest son and one of his friends, she reviewed the Marvel Studios film Avengers: Age of Ultron and the first issue of the Marvel Comics series A-Force. The intersection of the magazine’s rarefied sensibilities and Marvel’s bombastic entertainment was unusual but not nearly as strange as it would have been even a few years earlier. Since the turn of the twenty-first century, comics have made inroads into nearly every corner of American culture, from Hollywood blockbusters and network television series to gallery exhibitions and literary magazines. If anything, the New Yorker was ahead of the curve; since Françoise Mouly joined the staff as art editor in 1993, it has been remarkably receptive to comics, commissioning covers by acclaimed artists such as Robert Crumb and Chris Ware and running essays on historical pioneers such as Bernard Krigstein and Jack Cole.1 Given the magazine’s long-standing interest in comics and the superhero genre’s increasing centrality to American culture, the New Yorker’s decision to review a contemporary superhero comic feels less like a surprise than an acknowledgment of the inevitable.
The results of this interaction were no less inevitable. After dismissing the movie in a few sentences, Lepore trains her attention on A-Force, a comic book that assembles all of Marvel’s female superheroes onto one team for no purpose that Lepore can gather, other than the fact that they are all women. (The comic was one of dozens of spin-off titles released as part of Marvel’s Secret Wars crossover event; other series were populated entirely by cowboys, zombies, and similar high-concept shtick.) She mostly relies on her son and his friend to interpret the book for her, highlighting the baroque narrative continuity and endlessly self-replicating characters that serve to make A-Force absolutely incomprehensible to anyone not steeped in Marvel’s current publishing line. She also skewers Marvel’s superficial engagement with feminism, noting that many of the company’s female superheroes are derivative versions or gender-swapped copies of popular male characters. Operating more through snark and insinuation than argument, Lepore implies that Marvel’s female casting and A-Force’s female cast amount to little more than marketing hooks.
In the process, however, she also objects to the “pervy characters and costumes” and complains that the female superheroes “all look like porn stars.” Lepore maintains that this lascivious subtext is written into their DNA, noting that William Moulton Marston, the creator of Wonder Woman, was an advocate for the benefits of pornography and a contributor to a men’s magazine, writing copy for artist George Petty’s voluptuous pin-up girls. (The anecdote also provides a convenient opportunity to promote Lepore’s recent book The Secret History of Wonder Woman.) She doesn’t acknowledge that Marston’s feminism, kinky and idiosyncratic but also outspoken and sincere, makes his female heroes more ideologically committed than Marvel’s, or that his family’s sex-positive position on pornography is, for some contemporary feminists, far more progressive than her own. For Lepore, any idealized female figure is a sexual object, the cast of A-Force no less than the Petty Girls: “Their power is their allure [. . .]. Even their bodies are not their own.” Filtering her review through the sensibilities of two preteen boys, Lepore suggests that female superheroes have always been pin-up girls or porn stars, and can be nothing else.
This argument prompted some heated reactions from comics fans, and from one comics creator. In “Dr. Lepore’s Lament,” a response posted on her website, G. Willow Wilson, who created A-Force with cowriter Marguerite Bennett and artist Jorge Molina, castigates Lepore for her glib comparisons and censorious tone. Beyond addressing Lepore’s criticisms, however, Wilson also promotes a model of reading that would rule out virtually any criticism at all. She repeatedly complains about Lepore’s decontextualized reading of A-Force, listing the following contexts that are necessary to its interpretation: its status as the first issue in a limited series; its status as
part of the Secret Wars crossover; its place in the larger Marvel universe; its emergence from and response to fan criticisms of gender representation in superhero comics; its departure from older conventions of representing female superheroes, such as revealing costumes or contorted poses; and its refusal to engage in past practices such as objectifying or brutalizing female characters. Some of these points are laudable (though they set a very low standard), while others are familiar evasions that comics creators and fans have used to dismiss criticism of any serialized publication, but they all suggest that only die-hard superhero fans will be able to make sense of A-Force. Wilson not only concedes that her readers must be deeply invested in comics fandom, she practically boasts about it, marshaling claims that A-Force is not written for outsiders as defenses against any criticism from them.
This appeal to the comics community to rally against criticism from the outside is augmented by a generous helping of anti-intellectualism. Wilson first rejects “whatever self-congratulatory bar of high culture Dr. Lepore requires us to leap over in order to be considered ‘real’ artists” even though Lepore issues no such challenge in her review. Wilson then attempts to draw up the battle lines between insider and outsider with another reference to Lepore’s elitism:
It is a shame that, in this recent wave of mainstream media attention toward comics, actually reading comic books does not appear to be a prerequisite. And it shows. Where is the call to action in Dr. Lepore’s article? What is the aspirational message we are meant to take away? Who does she imagine she is helping? [. . .]
Dr. Lepore provides no answers, and in all likelihood, she never intended to. Her article is a very crisp demonstration of the difference between criticism from within the community—criticism from people who love comics and want to see them succeed—and criticism from the self-appointed gatekeepers of art and culture, who categorically do not give a shit.
This resentment of cultural elites certainly extends to Lepore’s academic credentials; the latent animosity bursts out into the open in the closing lines, where Wilson declares, “I imagine Dr. Lepore and I want the same thing: better, more nuanced portrayals of women in pop culture. What I don’t understand is why someone in her position would, from her perch a thousand feet up in the ivory tower, take pot shots at those of us who are in the trenches, doing exactly that.” The idea that Lepore’s commitment to feminism might require criticizing even well-intentioned comic books is simply out of the question. For Wilson, criticism only counts when it’s aspirational; it was a useful tool for calling forth comics that don’t objectify women, but it’s not supposed to be trained on those comics in turn. It’s certainly not supposed to find them wanting. Wilson prefers criticism from people who love comics and want to see them succeed, promoting future creation, community, and above all consumption.
My aim is not to belabor this or that point in an online dustup over a comic book, nor to choose sides between Wilson and Lepore. Instead I want to highlight the telling divergences between their critical approaches, but also the surprising convergences—for the only thing that was at all strange about this exchange, which followed well-worn formulas for critical discussions of popular culture, was that both parties held one principal but unspoken assumption. Lepore’s review is indicative of the approach taken by many academics who are unfamiliar with comics: she doesn’t engage with the actual comic in any detail, doesn’t place it in the contexts of its publication or its genre, and doesn’t seem to think it merits any more sustained critical argument. Wilson’s response is equally indicative of the approach taken not only by fans and creators but by many academics who identify as fans and who are intimately familiar with the world of comics: defensive, anti-intellectual, and adamant that good criticism should be aspirational, Wilson also exempts comics from sustained critical argument if that argument should prove too unsympathetic. What one rules out in her offhand dismissal, the other rejects in favor of populist resentment. Neither approach is adequate to interpreting even the most mundane comics, particularly in an academic context. This book attempts to chart another course, showing how comics studies can benefit from more careful engagement with comics texts and their many material, historical, and cultural contexts.
Extending this debate to the academic study of comics requires an important caveat. It’s one thing to criticize Harvard scholar Jill Lepore for her breezy indifference, even when she’s writing for a popular magazine, but G. Willow Wilson is not an academic. This doesn’t indemnify her from criticism either, but it complicates any attempt to cast her comments as representative of the populist tendency in comics studies. However, many academics who work in comics studies share the same assumptions and make the same arguments, including the celebration of unreflective reading and the suspicion of academic scholarship. Sometimes they even take the opportunity to prescribe these values for the field as a whole.
ACADEMIC ANTIELITISM AS COMICS CRITIQUE
In his introduction to Critical Approaches to Comics: Theories and Methods, a casebook edited by Matthew J. Smith and Randy Duncan, Henry Jenkins casts these arguments in more academically palatable terms. The title, “Should We Discipline the Reading of Comics?,” implies an uncertainty formed by Jenkins’s experiences watching the trials and tribulations of disciplinary formation in film and media studies (4–6). But no such ambivalence can be found in his opening paragraph, which constructs an idyllic myth of childhood reading to argue that comics are by nature and habit undisciplined:
Even as a child, I knew that reading comics demonstrated a thorough lack of discipline [. . .] there was not yet a canon (fan or academic) to tell us what we were supposed to read. We read for no purpose other than pleasure—there was no method to tell us how we were supposed to read. Indeed, many adults were there to remind us what a monumental waste of time all of this was—there was nothing like Publish or Perish pushing us to read more comics.
Jenkins acknowledges that this description is a nostalgic myth, and his introduction assumes that the formation of a discipline of comics studies is inevitable. He outlines a number of reasonable expectations for a such a discipline: that it should take comics seriously as objects of study, that it should interpret them in the contexts of their own traditions and vocabularies, that comics scholars should be familiar with these contexts, and that we shouldn’t have to explain or defend our discipline every time we engage in it. Nevertheless, his introduction continues to privilege fan modes of reading (leisurely, random, secretive) over academic ones (professional, orderly, public). Presuming to speak for the collection’s editors and contributors— and perhaps all comics scholars?—Jenkins declares, “We want a homeland where comics geeks of all disciplines can come together—perhaps a return to the treehouse where we used to talk about the latest comics with our buddies, or perhaps something which is one part local comics shop and one part university bookstore”. This tone persists to the end of the piece, where his use of the first-person plural becomes somewhat more supplicatory but the presumption that comics scholars should be first and foremost comics fans remains just as strong: “Let’s hold onto what made talking about comics fun in the first place even as we seek admission into the ivy-covered halls. [. . .] And let’s get together on Wednesdays when the new comics come into the shops”.
At this point I should probably mention that I was one of the contributors to Critical Approaches to Comics, and Henry Jenkins does not speak for me. I hope he doesn’t speak for the majority of comics scholars, although as I was working on this project I sometimes had my doubts. I have no interest in returning to some prelapsarian or prepubescent treehouse, and I’m not looking to establish a geek homeland. I’m looking for a professional academic discipline, one that is open to scholars from other disciplines, and comics fans too, but also those who have never read a comic before. I hope comics studies will welcome any methodology or theoretical framework, provided that scholars are willing to put in the work of familiarizing themselves with the field and its subjects. I also hope those scholars will maintain the highest professional standards of their chosen methodologies, whether they work in literary criticism, art history, sociology, linguistics, or any other field. The practices of academic scholarship are not simply professional markers or passwords; they help to ensure that our research is informed by the most relevant theories, supported by the best available evidence, engaged in dialogues with other scholars, and able to withstand intellectual scrutiny. As this volume will make clear, these standards are not always sustained, but without them comics studies will not be an academic discipline at all. We’ll just be a bigger treehouse.
Jenkins takes a different view in his introduction, evincing a deep and not altogether unwarranted suspicion of academic discourse. He wants to avoid the pitfalls that have characterized other disciplines in media studies: isolating themselves from fans and creators, establishing exclusive canons or hierarchies of taste, regarding media forms in isolation, getting dragged into endless and unresolvable arguments over definitions, and anything else that results in overly restrictive disciplinary frameworks. However, his aversion to elitism and exclusivity sometimes bleeds over into a general animosity toward academic discourse, as when he frets about “Young Turks spouting credentializing theory” —a cliché that seems more germane to the “theory wars” of the 1980s and 1990s than to most comics conferences I have attended. Comments such as these suggest that snobbery can cut both ways, and in fact Jenkins is quick to lecture fans as well as academics for their exclusionary practices—“These very different branches of research need to stop rolling their eyes and snickering behind each other’s backs. They need to learn to talk to and with each other” —even if he frames them in a curiously personified and personalized manner.
The rest of his introduction tends to hold academics solely responsible for this isolation, however, even though his scant examples cut in the other direction. Jenkins contrasts two anthologies, A Comics Studies Reader (edited by Jeet Heer and Kent Worcester and published by the University Press of Mississippi) and The Best American Comics Criticism (edited by Ben Schwartz and published by Fantagraphics), as representatives of the academic and fan/practitioner approaches to comics studies. He notes that Schwartz’s collection includes no academics while Heer and Worcester’s reader “includes mostly academic contributors,” concluding that each discourse has excluded the other. Yet that “mostly” should signal that these two books are not equally exclusionary—in fact, about one quarter of Heer and Worcester’s contributors are journalists, fans, or practicing comics artists, what Jenkins terms “the Seldes and Spiegelman clans” of the fan-scholars, including none other than Gilbert Seldes and Art Spiegelman. Stranger still, the book’s coeditor, Jeet Heer, is himself listed by Jenkins as one of the “fan intelligentsia” whose point of view is supposedly represented in Schwartz’s book but not Heer’s. To complicate the picture still further, Heer and Worcester had previously collaborated on another anthology, Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium (also published by the University Press of Mississippi), which surveys writings on comics by journalists, essayists, and public intellectuals dating back to the 1890s, consolidating and canonizing the public traditions of comics scholarship and presenting them to an academic audience. Jenkins cites this volume in his notes, but it doesn’t otherwise trouble his picture of an academic discipline that shuts out other discourses about comics. His prescriptions are instead bolstered by sourceless condemnations of hypothetical scholars, as Jenkins shadowboxes against a series of imaginary rivals.
A markedly different appraisal of the challenges and shortcomings of North American comics scholarship had been offered some years earlier by Joseph Witek. In “American Comics Criticism and the Problem of Dual Address,” Witek also notes the tensions and animosities that sometimes arise between academics and other comics scholars. He attributes these frictions to suspicion or outright hostility on the part of artists and critics from the fan tradition, citing representative objections to academic jargon (or, in some cases, the very prospect of the academic study of comics) from critic Robert C. Harvey, educator Leonard Rifas, and comics artist Art Spiegelman. Tellingly, none of these figures have been marginalized in the academic discourse about comics: Harvey has been published by the University Press of Mississippi, Rifas is a scholar and teacher (as well as a fellow contributor to Critical Approaches to Comics), and Spiegelman is widely read as both an artist and a critic. Far from depicting an academic discipline saturated with snobbery toward these voices, Witek describes one that has tried too hard to be all things to all readers: the field has limited its ability to generate new knowledge because it has addressed itself to an impossibly variegated audience and done so “from a defensive crouch”. The crouch, at least, is easy to understand, as even the use of the mildest and most accessible critical terminology is enough to provoke a stinging rebuke from critics like Harvey, who resent the intrusion of academic discourse into a space they regard as their own. However, comics scholars who renounce the markers of academic discourse—chief among them a specialized vocabulary and the citation of other scholars working in the same field—have surrendered the ability to conduct their research as part of a larger critical conversation with a shared sense of its own history. We have impeded our own work, Witek says, and it has done nothing to appease the Harveys of the world.
Witek is willing to risk charges of exclusivity if it means expanding the limits of our knowledge and our craft as scholars; Jenkins takes the opposite approach in his introduction to Critical Approaches to Comics, stressing that academics must learn to speak to many different audiences in a kind of multiple address. The merits and drawbacks of Jenkins’s method are on full display in his brief reading of Kim Deitch’s The Search for Smilin’ Ed, which he offers as a potential model for comics scholarship. Jenkins makes the case that comics must be read transmedially by scholars who look to explore connections across media rather than attempt to craft medium-specific arguments that regard each form in isolation. Deitch’s graphic novel is well chosen for these purposes, and Jenkins details its many representations of and connections to other popular media, such as film and television. Yet having asserted that a comics studies narrowly focused on comics and only comics would falter when confronted with Deitch’s work, he fails to show where his transmedial approach would thrive. For all the time Jenkins spends describing how we should read The Search for Smilin’ Ed, he never quite gets around to reading it, let alone explaining what new insight or understanding such a reading would yield. The contours of his approach are laid out with clarity, but their applications and purposes remain unclear. This unilluminating reading might seem to confirm Witek’s warning that “in the attempt to address so many audiences at once, we have disabled ourselves from talking to each other”, yet Jenkins specifically addresses an audience of other comics scholars and does so in the interest of promoting a distinct critical methodology. For all that he prescribes a “radically undisciplined” approach to comics studies, his proposed methods and values fit neatly within a coherent and well-defined academic discipline: comparative in its approach to media, inclusive in both its subjects and its participants, deeply suspicious of canons and hierarchies, and quick to accuse other academics of elitism, Jenkins’s piece represents a highly orthodox application of the disciplinary assumptions of cultural studies.
As it has developed since the 1960s, the field of cultural studies has opened the academy to the examination of popular culture—a necessary and long-overdue project without which comics studies, and this book, would not be possible. As theorized and practiced by scholars such as John Fiske, however, the discipline’s assumptions have hardened into a mode of cultural populism that celebrates any and all manifestations of popular culture while dismissing their critics as elitists. Jim McGuigan, in his book Cultural Populism, suggests that the political and intellectual assumptions of cultural populism are distinct from the study of popular culture, a practice that he welcomes; indeed, to the extent that these assumptions encourage an appreciative, open-minded attitude toward popular tastes, McGuigan is happy to identify himself as a cultural populist. McGuigan specifically criticizes the “uncritical populist drift in the study of popular culture” (his emphasis), a drift that has led certain strands of cultural studies to limit their focus to a narrow and self-affirming set of theoretical positions while they neglect economic and historical contexts that can’t be explained through textual interpretation alone. McGuigan calls instead for a “critical populism” that can study popular texts while still accounting for the material conditions of their production. Respectful and essentially sympathetic in his critiques, McGuigan nevertheless raises serious concerns about the populist tendency in cultural studies. He observes that the “uncritical endorsement of popular taste and pleasure [. . .] is curiously consistent with economic liberalism’s concept of ‘consumer sovereignty’”, an idea that scholars today are more likely to subsume under the political logic of neoliberalism. Thomas Frank has similarly noted that cultural populism is perfectly complementary with the neoliberal ideology that he terms market populism, which characterizes free markets as expressions of the popular will and mediums of democratic consent. Although most cultural studies scholars identify strongly with progressive or leftist politics, Frank notes that cultural populism shares market populism’s disdain for intellectual elites—whom it imagines as anyone who presumes to criticize the tastes of the people or their articulations in the cultural marketplace.
In American Idyll: Academic Antielitism as Cultural Critique, Catherine Liu traces this ethos to a much longer populist tradition that resents intellectuals and experts, sometimes with good reason and sometimes with disastrous consequences. For Liu, the emergence of cultural studies marked the entry of that anti-intellectual tradition into the academy itself, an arrival that corresponded with a larger shift in the system of higher education. Liu observes that in the postwar period, the model of a liberal education centered on the humanities and stressing the values of “reason, difficulty, intellectual history, and tradition” enjoyed substantial institutional support from the university and the state (170). As the postwar economic expansion ended and public investment in education eroded, that institutional support withered. While universities were shifting over to private funding and contingent employment, the liberal education they once promoted was replaced by a mode of critique (by no means limited to cultural studies, but certainly inclusive of it) that stresses transgression, emancipation, antielitism, and solidarity with popular opinion. There is much to be said for these values—again, it’s hard to imagine a comics studies without them. But in dismissing the values of reason, evidence, expertise, the whole sphere of the intellectual, the populist strain of cultural studies also runs the risk of losing some of the most powerful tools of cultural critique. A “radically undisciplined” discipline may find itself left only with an unquestioning affirmation of the popular and an equally vapid condemnation of a nebulously defined elite.
This mode of cultural populism is now so ascendant within academia that it has even spread to scholars who are not themselves populists. Jenkins is suspicious of writers who only study comics that accord with the values of middlebrow literature, and he expresses grave reservations over artists and critics who look to form aesthetic canons that would exclude most comics from consideration. Yet even the scholars who are most engaged in those projects, scholars who have sought to build a comics studies that conforms to traditional notions of literary prestige, transform into the most effusive fans when the time comes to discuss the comics they deem worthy of inclusion. Some of the most carefully researched and skillfully argued pieces will rule out any oppositional stance toward their subjects in order to celebrate comics, both individually and collectively, in terms that are remarkably similar to Jenkins’s own. For all that they seek to champion the comics form, however, many of the authors of these pieces remain woefully (and sometimes willfully) ill informed about the art, industry, and criticism of comics, as they often have not bothered to familiarize themselves with their subjects. This troubling trend holds true for new comics readers and lifelong fans, fire-breathing populists and ideological crusaders of every stripe. These scholars don’t always work within Jenkins’s preferred disciplinary framework, but they are still undisciplined.
The problem that faces comics studies isn’t cultural studies per se, nor even the orthodoxies of cultural populism, but rather a certain style of scholarship that assumes comics, because they are a popular form, don’t warrant the rigors of sustained critical attention. This style of writing can encompass work on every kind of comic, from the most popular entertainment to the most prestigious works of art (categories that prove increasingly hard to distinguish in the comics world anyway, and with diminishing returns). The resulting criticism exhibits any number of problems, including
- constructing elitist hierarchies of taste
- constructing antielitist (but equally patronizing) condemnations of critical judgment
- abandoning the standards and practices of academic scholarship
- ignoring or misreading other comics scholarship
- relying on a single theory or theorist to do all the interpretive work
- applying that theory inflexibly to reach preordained conclusions
- ignoring the roles of comics artists, ownership practices, or production and creative labor in general
- not reading the comics selected for discussion
- not regarding comics as worthy of academic study
This last complication occurs in scholarly books claiming to study comics with a regularity that is both surprising and depressing. But no matter the subject or discipline, the comics populists and their more highbrow counterparts share one common method and flaw: they avoid challenging and critically informed readings in favor of superficial or celebratory ones.
In the interest of grounding this argument in more examples, of not boxing at shadows, I will survey several works of comics scholarship, ranging in focus from the popular to the literary, that draw from this common set of problems—especially in their failure to treat the comics as subjects of critical analysis, or their disciplines as methods of critical analysis, or both.
Marc Singer is an associate professor of English at Howard University. He is the author of Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics and the coeditor of Detective Fiction in a Postcolonial and Transnational World.