Saturday, 25 October 2014

Comics Studies - Stuck Happily in Transition

It's too damn easy to get caught up in routines of thought.

We as scholars have a job, don't we? We're meant to break new ground, come up with new ways of approaching problems, and come up with new problems where nobody had considered them before. If this is so, the biggest threat to our success is falling into routine and ceasing to revolutionize our thinking. "Ossifying" as I just heard it phrased at London's "Transitions" comics research symposium.

Comics refuse to settle. In every iteration of the form through history they've sought to outdo themselves, climbing over each other in a race to reach untouched conceptual and technical soil. This shouldn't be surprising; it's a statement that holds true for most if not all forms of art that developed through the 20th century, be they visual or written forms. Initially driven by the pure capitalist motivation to sell, innovation in comics took a turn for the radical when the Comics Code threatened the industry with stagnation and hasn't slowed down since. So why, then, am I hearing concern voiced in the halls of Birkbeck University of London, that the bones of our field are stiffening?
I can't say I necessarily agree with D'Orazio. After all, in the past 7 hours I've also been recipient to a wealth of theory and analysis that has jumpstarted my interest in new directions of study and renewed my faith in the field that I'm attempting to enter. Her polemic felt oddly incongruous, claiming disciplinary stagnation in the midst of a symposium entitled "new directions in comics studies". I do understand D'Orazio's concern. Studies of comics from a purely literary direction fall appallingly short in dealing with a text that is more than purely textual. Studies that corral comics within the traditions of Art History and expect it to play by the rules will almost inevitably end up struggling with matters of multiplex authorship and unconventional paths of influence, unless they stay strictly upon the beaten path of the accepted canon of Spiegelman and Satrapi, maybe dipping cautious toes into something like Herriman's Krazy Kat.

These disciplines have tools to offer Comics Studies, to be sure. Literary theory is, by nature, multidisciplinary. It deals with and is applied to the literary, but it often begins elsewhere: gender theory, sociology, philosophy, aesthetics, and so on. Comics can be literary, D'Orazio states, but they are not literature. Neither are they art, though they are undoubtedly an art form. Art History, a field that has developed to study the creation and impact of images in a canonized tradition, is not entirely equipped to deal with the network of image, text, book, labour, reproduction process, distribution, consumption, and criticism that makes up the scope of Comics Studies (I'm sure I missed some areas; please add them in the comments). I think what D'Orazio is saying is that we can apply literary theory and aesthetic theory to comics, but we must be careful not to stop there and get comfortable. I agree. But if she's worried that we've already stopped and settled into a holding pattern of platitudes on the form I'm afraid she's sorely mistaken.

We have the advantage not only of being a young and recently institutionalized field but also of being a field with a constantly and dynamically growing body of subject matter before us. We also have the advantage of being a field rife with creators, with figures like McCloud and Horrocks both working creatively as industry cartoonists and critically as key theorists in the field. Comics-specific theory is emerging to tackle the ways the changing industry is changing the form. We're standing with our feet planted firmly on either side of a historical transition as the Age of Mechanical Reproduction gives way to the Age of Digital Reproduction. The possibilities are endless, and if #Transitions5 has proven anything it's that if you fill a room with comics scholars they will all come to comics from a different direction. We're not exactly Shakespeare scholars here. There's no way we'll ever run out of material to study, unless your conception of the field begins and ends with McCay or Caniff, in which case I say to you WAKE UP! We live in an unfolding tapestry of webcomics, motion comicshypercomics, comics that occupy whole galleries, hand-printed comics, comics dissertations, 3D comics, poetry comics, journalism comics, info comics, comics with stoner-hipster bears quoting Bukowski...

...if we're getting bored, we're doing it wrong.

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