There’s been a bit of a go round on the blogs about canons and what they’re good for. Via Dirk as always. James Sturm started things off by arguing that children’s book illustrator Virginia Lee Burton should be a great source of inspiration for young cartoonists, and that the Masters of American Comics exhibition from a couple of years back should have included more women. Tom Spurgeon then chimed in saying that Burton, while cool, doesn’t really seem that relevant to comics (or at least that she doesn’t seem like the godmother of comics, as Sturm claimed) and that if you’re going to accuse the Masters of Comics exhibition of not having any women you need to say what women you’d put in there and who you’d take out. Peggy Burns said this sounds like a cage match, which seems silly. Tom said he didn’t really want a cage match just more specificityHeidi said okay, let’s take out Feininger and replace him with Lynda Barry. Dirk chimed in to say he’d pick Phoebe Gloeckner over Art Spiegelman.

Phew.

So, starting from the bottom then: I don’t really know Gloeckner’s work, but I’d pretty much pick a stale dog turd over Art Spiegelman, so replacing him with whoever is fine with me. I love Feininger’s work, and I have little if any interest in Lynda Barry’s. So if I were curating that show, that isn’t the substitution I’d make.

However, if I were curating the show, there wouldn’t be a need to make one for one substitutions anyway. And that’s because the canon presented in that show just isn’t one I care about. Pretty much at all. The artists in the show were:

Will Eisner
Jack Kirby
Harvey Kurtzman
R. Crumb
Gary Panter
Chris Ware
Winsor McCay
Lionel Feininger
George Herriman
E. C. Segar
Frank King
Chester Gould
Milton Caniff
Charles M. Schulz

The artists on that list that I would absolutely keep are Schulz and McCay. I’d probably chuck everybody else. I like Feininger and Kirby and (with reservations) Crumb and Panter and Eisner and Ware well enough, but if I were choosing my best of the best, they wouldn’t be there.

A lot of this is just because I’m not that interested in early newspaper strips, which form the center of curator John Carlin’s vision of what comics are. Segar, King, Gould, Caniff…eh, whatever. It’s true that, because of my lack of interest, I haven’t really studied their work all that closely…but then, I’d wager Carlin hasn’t closely studied (or probably even heard of) the work of Edie Fake or Dewayned Slightweight, two genderqueer artists I would quite possibly include if I were going to be made king for a day. (Who else? Um…Dame Darcy, definitely. Art Young. Marston/Peter. Berni Wrightson. Bob Haney possibly. Ariel Schrag. Dugald Stewart Walker, perhaps. Maybe Calef Brown; that man is a genius.)

So I’d have more women than Carlin’s line-up anyway. But…that’s not really the point. And I don’t think the debate about whether cage matches are worthwhile or about whether you need specificity in these kinds of arguments are really the point either

Tom was irritated because Sturm didn’t say who, in particular, he would replace. But Sturm didn’t say who he would replace in particular because he was making the argument that the criteria were altogether flawed in the first place. At the end of his retrospective he says:

But it’s increasingly clear to me, as I watch my students struggle to bring nuance to a medium that has historically lacked it, that they have as much (if not more) in common with children’s book artists like Burton as with the men who worked in the sweatshops in the early years of comic books. It is time to stop looking at the history of comics as the history of the comic industry. We need to make room for more masters, Burton among them.

I mean, I guess he could be more pugnacious about it, but I think it’s pretty clear that he’s saying that children’s book artists like Burton are a superior model for comics creators today. The comic strip creators in the sweatshops weren’t as good. We should chuck them as models and go with folks like Burton instead. So he’s not saying, take this one out or the other one out. He’s saying, rethink how this canon works from the bottom up. In particular, let’s replace the comic-strip guys with children’s book artists, many of whom, as it happens, were women.

The point here is that canons aren’t actually just a list of who’s the best or most important. They’re a list of who’s the best and most important to somebody in particular using particular criteria. Carlin’s into old newspaper strips and into folks who take those strips as a model or an inspiration (Eisner, Ware, Spiegelman, Kurtzman) with a few other folks tossed into the mix as well for balance. That’s a particular view of the industry. It’s an especially well-established view of the industry (in part because it gets institutional support like the Masters of Comics show, which is why that show matters, yes, even two years down the road.) But you could have other views of the industry, which are, say…more open to certain kinds of craftsmanship, or certain kinds of storytelling, or certain kinds of ideas about what comics are, or certain kinds of creators. Like women.