Caro recently highlighted an article by Craig Fischer at Transatlantica titled “Worlds within Worlds: Audiences, Jargon, and North American Comics Discourse”. I’ve decided to separate out this short comment on one particular section of Craig’s essay since it is only tangentially related to the bulk of Caro’s comments. The following comes from the middle of Craig’s taxonomy of comics writing called, “Essayists” (emphasis mine):
22 As a contributor to the Journal, my problem with Groth’s emphasis on evaluation is the absence of communal standards. In the editorial to Journal#100 (July 1985), Groth reprinted a commentary from the British fanzine BEM where Bernard Leak pointed out that despite the Journal’s commitment to excellence, “muscular standards-raising activity requires some kind of focus, some general agreement on what a good comic is; and there isn’t any such agreement, in the pages of the Journal or anywhere else” (Groth 12). Leak further argued that
“A general theory of comics, such as has been produced (in many conflicting forms, of course) for literary genres like novels and epics, is necessary before any dreams for the future can take on a definite shape and positive content. If someone doesn’t like any particular theory, he can supplement, modify or replace it; but until one appears all criticism of comics will be floating in the void, unsupported by anything more than a consensus of some readers’ uncontrolled intuitions. (12)”
23 Hindsight is 20/20: the quality of American comics has risen since 1985, but Fantagraphics’ aggressive publishing and promotion of artists like Chris Ware and Joe Sacco had more to do with the rise of the graphic novel than any theoretical consolidation in the Journal. Over a decade later, in his editorial for Journal #200, Groth can only define comics criticism in amorphous terms: “In order to truly appreciate art, you need enough distance to stand outside of it, but not so far outside as to make yourself remote from its particular beauty. It has to touch you impersonally. (Get too close and you’ll start crying at Love Story.)” (6). I love the Journal and I’m grateful for the chances I’ve had to publish there, but I also lament that transformative interpretive concepts haven’t arisen from its pages in the same way that la politique des auteurs emerged from Cahiers du cinema to influence the broader culture. Given Groth’s hatred for academia, it’s ironic that the Journal is in the same situation as Witek sees in academic comics writing: in a theoretical vacuum, without a tradition of scholarship to tap into and develop.
The statements by Leak (para 22) have lost something through the passage of years. Without referring to article in question, I suspect that it has something to do with the early years of struggle and that process of stumbling in the dark; that mish mash of elitism and fawning which characterized the early years of the Journal, and which still exist within the most erudite sections of the comics blogosphere today (the subjects are different, the attitudes are not).
The idea that a “general theory of comics” (not, I should add, Understanding Comics or The System of Comics) could emerge from the hand of a single person and be immediately accepted by one and all like scientific fact would appear to be wishful thinking. It is borderline delusional to think that such a theory would lead to the systematic elevation of critical standards. Rather, what would have been required would have been a kind of editorial fascism (or suicide depending on your point of view) that would probably have nipped the magazine in the bud. Being the only viable and clearly audible voice during the period under discussion, the Journal represented comics criticism in its “adult” incarnation in toto. Any such concretization of standards might have stifled its most important and now largely satisfied mission.
Having said this, I doubt if Leaks’ statement was a call for a very specific and narrow aesthetic in comics. If it was, it was misplaced considering the period when it was published, a period characterized by the production and appreciation of infantile narratives and ideas. As such, I find Craig’s suggestion that “Groth can only define comics criticism in amorphous terms” largely unconvincing, since the quoted statement appears to be an intentionally vague statement on aesthetic appreciation. It would be fairer to say that The Comics Journal‘s mission has been largely consistent but broad over the years, a necessary “evil” in view of the dearth of committed writers, the lack of avenues for such writing and the stage of development of the art form during the Journal‘s heyday. The rise of online criticism is an opportunity for new and more specific approaches; hopefully ones which will not revert to the “If it wasn’t of any value you will not choose it” position of fandom and myopic scholarship.
Craig’s “lament that transformative interpretive concepts haven’t arisen from [the Journal‘s] pages in the same way that la politique des auteurs emerged from Cahiers du cinema to influence the broader culture” is quite reasonable but neglects to remind us that the Journal stood no chance of this ever happening however insightful or elevated its editorial position. The primacy of film culture during the twentieth century was a vital part of auteur theory gaining purchase in that “broader culture”. Till this day, there is perhaps no art form with less respectability (unless you include video games) and cultural cachet than comics.
The Journal was always at the service of comics and cartoonists. A more vibrant and commercially viable art form would have encouraged different voices and approaches but this was not to be, just one of the unfortunate aspects of being a comics enthusiast on the cusp of a period of evolution. The magazine cultivated the potential audience for alternatives; it refined their tastes and introduced them to new ways of thinking about specific comics. Thus encouraged, these readers began to look for and demand more from the form. A corresponding effect might be found in a statement in Vasari ‘s Lives of the Artists, here quoted and elaborated upon by Kenneth Clark in his popular history of Western European art:
“The Renaissance historian of art, Vasari, when he asked himself (characteristically) why it in Florence and not elsewhere that men became perfect in the arts, gave as his first answer: ‘The spirit of criticism: the air of Florence making minds naturally free, and not content with mediocrity [but leading them to value works for their beauty and other good qualities rather than for their authors].’ And this harsh, outspoken competition between Florentine craftsmen not only screwed up technical standards, but also meant that there was no gap of incomprehension between the intelligent patron and the artist. Our contemporary attitude of pretending to understand works of art in order not to appear philistines would have seemed absurd to Florentines.”
The general impression of The Comics Journal as some kind of monolithic entity with a single hive mind (especially during the 80s and 90s) also seems to run counter to Leak’s argument in his first quoted statement. While such an impression of the Journal is undoubtedly false, it does suggest that some arguable standard did emerge from the chaos of those times. It is a standard which emanated from the contest of ideas, and the paucity (and poverty) of such conflicts in comics today is symptomatic of the dearth of new thinking. Similarly, the lack of engagement with the “new” and controversial has retarded the distillation of a host of standards in present day comics criticism. The suggestion that there should be some “general agreement on what a good comics is” (a “communal standard”) sounds worthy but is absolutely poisonous to any art form. Whatever my feelings on the subject, this embalming of taste and standards has made some inroads as far as comics is concerned; such has been the power of the Journal‘s “voice” over the years, at least as far as alternative comics are concerned. Considering the stature of the magazine in American comics, it was perhaps an inevitability.