Last week several HU stalwarts and guests put a great deal of energy into their analysis of, and conversations around, my book Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature (2005). I want to thank everyone for weighing in and taking on the work. I’m gratified by your sustained attention to Alternative Comics, even in those instances where you took issue with it. It’s great to see that the book can inspire such intense discussion, and, man, have I learned a lot from the spirited back-and-forth.
Tomorrow I plan to post in response to our exchanges on Gilbert Hernandez. And, in the weeks ahead, I hope to respond at length to Caro’s excellent and important post (from my POV the most thought-provoking of all, and one that will definitely inform my work, going forward). In today’s post, though, with your indulgence, I’d like to offer something different from a point by point reply or analysis. I’d like instead to give a personal afterword to the book, an autobiographical and critical reflection that will (a) sketch out the book’s history and context, and (b) consider the prospects for its future reception and use. I want to do this because the circumstances that drove me to write Alternative Comics have changed so very much since—not just on a personal level, but within the comics studies field—and because I want to show how a project like this fits into a working and teaching life, one that, inevitably, presses onward after the project is done.
Along the way, I’ll consider whether “alternative comics” even continue to exist in the same form as they did when I began the book, and whether the terms used to organize my thinking in the book can remain relevant.
I don’t presume that my circumstances are (or were) typical, since I’m a slow writer and Alternative Comics took a long time to get out the gate, but, given last’s week discussion and the changes fast overtaking comics and comics studies, I’d like to share with readers how the work emerged, under what pressures, and why. I hope this will go some way toward demystifying the processes that result in books like mine.
This is a long one, so I’ll divide it into three sections.
A. Me, me, me
(With respect and thanks to the great Justin Green!)
Alternative Comics is, to me, a time capsule. It testifies to my own career history and to changes in the comic book culture, not only because of the arguments it puts forth but also simply by existing at all. I’m very proud of the book, and believe it remains relevant, but I cannot help think of it, or parts of it anyway, in historical terms.
That I have to look at the book in hindsight already, just five years after it hit the shelves, is a testimony to how dramatically things have changed in comics and comics studies. Matthias has said that the book has a “retrospective” quality; Derik has said that some of it feels “out of date” in some ways. I don’t mind being retrospective, but I’d hate to be out of date in the sense of no longer useful. Let me recount how the book came to be and, from my POV, how the world of comics has changed around it since its publication.
Though it was published in the summer of 2005, Alternative Comics had its origins between 1996 and 2000. Its first draft was my Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Connecticut, proposed circa 1995-96 and completed and defended in the spring of 2000. By that time I had been in conversations with the publisher, the University Press of Mississippi, for several years, and the Press’s then-director, Seetha Srinivasan, had been patiently waiting for me to submit a manuscript (I thank her for that!). I sent the completed dissertation to the Press the Monday after defending and filing it at UConn, and received critical feedback on the text by that fall. The Press was quick to act and eager to publish. Still, it took another five years, almost, for the book to hit the shelves. This tells, I think, in the fact that some aspects of the book’s argument have dated.
Why did it take so long? During those five years I worked to find a job, and eventually did, at California State University, Northridge. My family and I made the cross-country move as I made the transition from part-time teacher to full-time professor on the tenure track. We weathered a lot of changes, and I learned a lot about academia as a profession. Life was complex, and the teaching load at my university comparatively heavy. I was determined to do well at carrying that load. Between starting at CSUN in Fall 2001 and attaining tenure in June 2007, I designed a new course syllabus almost every semester (in the past decade I’ve developed twenty courses). So, for my first several years at CSUN, the book was necessarily not a first priority—which pained me. At the same time, there was never a season when I didn’t think about the book and tinker with it.
Within a handful of years of my arrival at CSUN, it became clear to me that I could devote my research and writing to comics studies, that the field was gathering steam and barreling ahead and that I could ride that momentum more than I had thought possible in 2000. But by 2002-03 I had a fear that the book might be losing relevance. Compounding the problem was that I was slow to be satisfied—always am—and my revisions of the book manuscript painstaking.
Of course the bulk of the book had been drafted for dissertation purposes by May 2000 (the oldest passages, on Gilbert Hernandez, had been delivered at conferences as early as 1996, and, man, was I tired of proofing those over and over!). Over the next four and a half years, though, I revised it radically. Among the changes:
- I dropped a chapter (about the work of Chester Brown, pre-Louis Riel), both for space reasons and because I couldn’t be satisfied that that chapter’s theoretical foundations were sound. I have never found a home for that material.
- I split and reworked the very long chapter on autobiographical comics, creating two daughter chapters.
- I converted the dissertation’s conclusion into a new final chapter.
- I flipped the order of the first two chapters (on historical context and formalist considerations, respectively).
- I wrote an entirely new introduction, ditching the tentative and fretful introduction that the dissertation had had. I had originally written—at the urging of my dissertation director, Tom Roberts—an introduction that tried to persuade even the most disinterested literary scholar (and my mental image here was a professor from the 1950s or ’60s) that comics were an object worthy of literary study, in the most traditional sense. That effort was one source of the tone of advocacy that Noah mentions. It turned out to be great practice, indeed necessary training for my job hunt—Tom was right to ask for it—but when it came time to bring the work to a larger audience, it also turned out to be, well, unnecessary. By 2005 comics studies was known to be happening, and so I could make a bolder, more straightforward case. Thank goodness. For me, one of the happiest parts of the whole revision process was replacing the original timid, status-seeking introduction with something more assertive. I felt as if I was taking flight.
- At the insistence of my editors—and they too were right—I cut my endnotes severely, reducing the total bulk of the book’s apparatus. Accessibility for readers beyond my dissertation committee was the goal.
In addition to these big structural changes, I worked toward a more readable style—more confident, less starchy, and less hemmed in by dissertation anxiety—in the process revising and trimming on just about every page. A whole lot of style doctoring came between the dissertation phase and the finished book; I reworked the prose time and again. Finally, I worked continually to keep the book’s references up to date (my last, bitterest update being the parenthetical addition of Will Eisner’s date of death).
Such revisions helped the book seem current when it appeared in the summer of 2005, but by the time the book was in my hands—and, inevitably, I reread the whole thing, as is my habit/curse—I could see that there were deeper conceptual matters on which I had already begun to drift. Alternative Comics had, for me, dated, not because the work was tied to the historical past but because I remained restless and had begun to approach the question of “literature” from a different angle, both a more pragmatic curricular one—all that teaching had had, and continues to have, its effect—and a skeptical one. The center of gravity in my work had begun to shift, despite much hemming and hawing on my part, to Cultural Studies, a label I had always resisted due to Cultural Studies’ resistance to, or dismantling of, aesthetic and evaluative criticism. I began to explore rather than resist. In short, I was moving.
A watershed moment may have been circa 2008 when I had to go through the paperwork and multiple stages of review required to convert my “experimental” course, Comic Books as Literature, which I had taught annually since 2005, into a “regular,” permanent course—which I rechristened Comics and Graphic Novels. That renaming was part of a larger strategy to make the course’s official catalog copy as inclusive and flexible as possible, so that a variety of approaches could be taken (by me, and potentially by other instructors in the future) when teaching it. By then I realized that the subtitle to Alternative Comics, “An Emerging Literature,” was the most debated and debatable of the book’s claims, and that the definition of what constitutes “literature” within the academy had become a slippery and controversial subject. Or, in some quarters, it had become beside the point. So it was around this time that I began to insist that that subtitle was not simply a bid for literary respectability but rather an internal critique of the idea of the literary—in other words, an incipient attack on literary studies from within. I realized that I had begun to resist the gentrification and homogenization implied in the concept of the literary (dangers implicit, I have to say, in Robert’s response) and that, increasingly, my interests in teaching and studying comics would have to diverge from and challenge traditional notions of literature.
(Regarding that challenge, I refer you to my newly published essay in the online journal TransAtlantica‘s special issue on comics scholarship .)
Mind you, I was glad to have written Alternative Comics toward an academic literary audience—still am, since writing to that audience brought rigor and sophistication to the project—but I was starting to see that I would have to selectively redefine the word literary for my own purposes. The literary entails, or traditionally has entailed, anyway, too many exclusions and dismissals for my taste, not least the dismissal of the visual and of the popular. When I started pushing back against those exclusions, with a greater confidence than I could have mustered at the dissertation stage, I began questioning the reigning concept of literature as such, and in particular the terms of the graphic novel’s success within literary studies. I wanted to reassert the importance of studying comics qua comics.
It seems that Alternative Comics already leans in this direction, since some readers—hello again, Robert—have taken the book as advocating for the comic book subculture. That was not my intention, but it was my intention to make sure that the subculture did not get ignored, as is so often the case in academic criticism of literary comics.
So, there was/is a tension in Alternative Comics between favoring the literary and standing up for comics as a distinct, irreducible, and rich tradition. This informed my dissertation, in an inchoate, not quite self-aware fashion: I had even been challenged during my oral defense, in a helpful way, by my advisor and friend Jean Marsden, who asked me, point blank, if it was really my intention to dismiss all comics from before the rise of alternative comics. Of course I said no—I was shocked by the question, actually—but I realized that the question was a reasonable extrapolation from what my dissertation said. I’d worked so hard to curry literary respectability that I had categorically excluded much that was interesting about comics. This tension, in a more conscious way, certainly informed the introduction and conclusion of the finished book, as I took pains to move beyond the dissertation stage, to write more carefully, and less disapprovingly, about the popular traditions from which comics sprung (and which, as a reader, I had frankly never left behind, nor wanted to leave behind). Simply put, I tried to burn the snobbery out of my writing.
Some perceptive reviewers recognized this tension. I credit Bart Beaty, over at The Comics Reporter, and Jan Baetens, at the journal Image [&] Narrative, for pinpointing the problem (and you can see me grapple with them in my Transatlantica piece). Both realized that there was a tug-of-war in the book between the drive for status (that is, the aspiration toward the literary) and taking comics on their own terms. Both asked, in effect, where exactly I was locating the concept of the literary, since they could see that I was trying to get beyond the stale “status” argument. I was proud to be told, by Beaty, that I had an “uncommonly catholic” and non-dogmatic notion of what constitutes “literature,” but I was also bothered by something unresolved at the bottom of all this. That something did have to do with “literature” and the kinds of status claims implicit in that word. Both Beaty and Baetens seemed to be asking, what it is the point of pressing those claims, if not to gentrify comics? And won’t our understanding of comics be impoverished if we accede to this gentrification? Though I wasnt quite willing—and I’m still not—to abandon the idea that comics are a literary form, I could see their point.
The long and short of it is that comic art constitutes an area of study that is, and will likely remain, ambiguous with respect to disciplinary and cultural status (as I argue in, again, Transatlantica—apologies for the rampant plugs, but, wow, the Transatlantica piece turns out to be quite relevant to all this). Alternative Comics represents an attempt to deal with that problem, one I’m proud to have made. My more recent work, however, doesn’t tackle the problem in quite the same way. For example, my book on Jack Kirby, the manuscript for which I’m finishing right now, doesn’t worry about the literary. It’s a book about cartooning as narrative drawing, about superheroes, science fiction, and the technological sublime, and about the messiness of trying to do auteurist criticism of popular culture. I don’t know if the book will be seen as advocating for the comic book subculture, but I’m not worried.
B. Do alternative comics still exist? (Alternative to what?)
I’ve said that Alternative Comics testifies to changes in the comic book culture. I’d like to talk more concretely about that.
Comics, reception- and business-wise, have changed dramatically since Alternative Comics came out in 2005. Indeed things were changing pretty damn fast in the handful of years leading up to the book. Certainly the field has gone through major shifts post-2000.
Take for example the upsurge in graphic novel publishing outside of the direct market—that is, the rise of mainstream literary publishers promoting the graphic novel and at times poaching artists and comics that at one time would have most likely belonged to the boutique publishers of the direct market (consider Pantheon’s line as an example, and its seeming impact on publishers like Fantagraphics and Top Shelf). Consider too the way direct-market publishers like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly have brokered their own distribution arrangements with publishers and distributors outside of comics shops. A tributary phenomenon here, not to be underrated, is the upsurge in deluxe reprints of classic comic strips by these publishers, as in The Complete Peanuts, reprints that have had a big impact outside of comic book stores. I was struggling to keep pace with these changes even as Alternative Comics went to press.
Other economic factors that were already important at the time of Alternative Comics became even more obviously important afterward. Most notably, the graphic novel sections of general bookstores continued to be fattened by the boom in translated manga, a boom that has since crested and dropped off but that seems to have had a lasting impact on comics as a publishing niche. Also, digital distribution and exhibition of comics, and the creation of comics especially for the online environment, have accelerated, and of course the rise of digital reading devices and the recent lunges in that direction by Marvel, DC, and other publishers have prompted a wave of speculation about comics’ downloadable future. I can now go online and get, legally, not only new releases from the big superhero publishers but also independent comic book projects such as Finder (in draft form) and, soon, Age of Bronze, and even some minicomix.
At the same time, the direct market has stopped nurturing alternative comic books, that is, pamphlets, the signal coffin nail being Diamond’s minimums policy enacted in January 2009. The climate has become inhospitable for alt-comix in comic book form; or, to put it another way, the liberation of content from the comic book form (an issue of some concern in my book) seems at last to have come, willy-nilly. Love and Rockets‘ shift to annual status may be considered one benchmark here–the definitive alt-comix magazine has now migrated to the GN bookshelf–and the very recent move of Palookaville toward Acme-style hardcover status is another. Not to mention the cancellation of comic book series from publishers like D&Q.
The upshot of all these changes is that the continued artistic development of comics has been decoupled from the fortunes of the traditional periodical comic book. Some might argue that this had already happened before 2000—hell, minicomix were a beacon well before I started my dissertation—but this shift has become overt, and economically very significant, since Alternative Comics came out. What this means is that alternative comics have been largely shunted from typical direct market stores and into general bookstores, and from periodical magazine formats to original album formats, often in hardcover, which are being sold for prices comparable to those of hardbound picture books (see what Jared Gardner has to say about this trend over at Guttergeek). Comic book stores have had less to do with this shift than have general bookstores (though I exclude here those very well-stocked and progressive comic book stores found in a number of major cities, that is, those few DM stores where minis, untranslated foreign comics, and other scarce art objects are regularly carried).
Serialization, as Derik points out, is not the inevitable fate it once was. And serialization in comic book form certainly isn’t. Frankly, this throws Chapter 6 of Alternative Comics into a different light.
The comic book, in the traditional sense of little comics magazine, is not dead, but it appears increasingly irrelevant to the production of literary comics and art comics, whose aspirations are directed outside of the DM. Once this happens, what is the point of calling such comics “alternative” any longer? In my book (31) I suggest that the term alternative became necessary in order to distinguish different kinds of comics being offered in the same market, that is, the direct market. The term is differential (alternative to what?), its meaning clear only within the specialized subculture of the comic book store, with its peculiar definition of what is mainstream. What is the point of calling Maus, surely one of the most commercially as well as critically successful comics of the past twenty years, an “alternative” publication? The scads of college professors and libraries that have ordered and re-ordered Maus, taught and offered it, and in effect encouraged circulation of it, don’t consider the text any more alternative than they would consider Toni Morrison or Louise Erdrich or Cormac McCarthy. Granted that a project like, say, Kramer’s Ergot may continue to draw the appellation “alternative,” or perhaps “art comics”; in other words, it may continue to resist the literary mainstreaming that has overtaken Maus (I sure as hell cannot teach Kramer’s as easily, though I have tried). But even here the term “alternative” is dicey, because comics like Kramer’s don’t ride the coattails of, or define themselves against, comic book fandom’s putative mainstream. Instead they are art books.
If the term “alternative comics”—or at least the onetime currency of the term—stems from the history of the direct market, then it may no longer mean anything in this new era. Alternative Comics, with its concerns about comic book shops, serialization, and so on, in effect documents an era that is already slipping away.
Mind you, I’m not trying to preside over or hasten my book’s obsolescence. I stand by the book’s specific textual readings and its larger historical arguments. I believe the book will have value decades from now. But the landscape has shifted. There are two ways of defining the term alternative comics, a broad way and a narrow, more specific, way, and frankly I’m not sure that the narrow way is relevant anymore.
The broad way—looser, more inclusive—would see alternative comics as simply an artistically aspiring mindset toward comics; the relevance of that has not changed. But the narrower way, in a sense the “strong” way of defining alternative comics—stronger because more rigorously defined, more historically specific—would identify alternative comics as a specific direct-market genre of comic books, one that, despite encouraging artistic aspiration, was still bound by its relationships to comic book shops and to comic book fans. That more specific way, focusing on the small-press comic book, would have to concede that alternative comics were a largely white, largely male, apolitical, and even parochial genre subsidized by the direct market’s unique conditions, a genre that generated its own clichés and limitations. (The best alternative comics were at war with those clichés and limitations, just as the best work in any genre is at odds with the generic; in any case, some very important creators who were not white males and were not parochial were inspired by the genre.) That specific way of defining alternative comics, as a direct-market genre, was already threatened when Diamond achieved a near-monopoly on direct distribution in 1996, and its death-knell was sounded, arguably, by the minimums policy enacted in 2009.
At my most fatalistic, I tend to say that the unique cultural and economic conditions that gave birth to the alternative comic book genre—in the narrower sense—have passed. And that admission does mark a significant change from the viewpoint espoused in Alternative Comics. What can I say? The landscape is different.
The historical arguments set forth in Alternative Comics remain relevant, though, because the direct market subculture was absolutely the seedbed and prerequisite for what we see going on right now. Historically, the graphic novel genre in America was the result of the ascendance of comic book culture. Maus notwithstanding, the genre was a product of comic book shops. My book explains how: I insist on the historical origins that are elided in too many literary studies of the graphic novel genre; I insist on the economic and cultural bases of artistic developments. And I’m proud of that.
This is why I have so much trouble (as my comments over the last week or so may reveal!) with critical views of comics that discount or shun the popular and hold up “literary crossover” comics in a historical and cultural vacuum.
I don’t think it’s an inappropriate concession to the comic book subculture to point out that Bechdel’s Fun Home was informed not only by Spiegelman’s Maus but also by Pekar’s American Splendor, in its original, self-published form, a form that depended to a great degree on comic shops. I don’t think it’s inappropriate to point out that Satrapi’s Persepolis, originally published in France by L’Association, is part of an international movement in alternative comics that was prepared for and made welcome, here in the U.S., by a segment of the comic book subculture. I don’t think it’s parochial or nerdy to point out that the leading lights in contemporary alternative comics production—artists like Clowes and Ware—were supported initially by comic book shops. That’s not nerdiness, that’s history. Alternative Comics sets out to make it impossible for academics to ignore that history.
C. Contexts, purposes, audiences
Underlying everything I’ve written so far is the fact that Alternative Comics is an academic book. Not an exclusively academic book in terms of audience, I hope, but one that does owe its existence, its window of opportunity, to the prospect of comics studies as an academic field. Though I hope the book has value to critics outside of academia, I didn’t write it primarily to serve as a guidebook for the evaluative criticism (thumbs up, thumbs down) of comics. Rather, I wrote it to make claims on the attention of literary studies as practiced by academics. In its original draft, that is, my dissertation, the book was undeniably about that. In the ensuing years of revision, I worked to return the personal to the academic, and to make the text more supple and accessible (may I recommend William Germano’s From Dissertation to Book and Richard Lanham’s Analyzing Prose?). But Alternative Comics never stopped being an academic project.
That’s why it crazes me so to see the book characterized (as in Robert’s post) as beholden to the comic book subculture. You don’t get to write PhD dissertations to the comic book subculture. That’s not how Alternative Comics started, and I cannot recognize what I wrote in that characterization.
So, the book is academic (though it’s nice to know that some people don’t think so based on the style). That doesn’t mean it’s automatically better than other books, or immune to criticism from “outside” the academy. It’s just a question of the main audience I imagined when writing and refining the text. While Alternative Comics tries to reach readers out in the larger world—and I can sometimes see the resulting rhetorical contortions, yow, in the prose—implicit in the project is my resistance to what I saw as shortcomings or blind spots in the specifically academic treatment of comics. This is to say that the book was a response to what had thus far happened in academic comics studies, and that certain elements of the book are therefore polemical.
Take for example my emphases on comics history and comics form. When I started my dissertation, I already had in mind the kinds of work I wanted to avoid; I had a mental picture of the prototypical academic article on comics, and that picture was, let’s say, unflattering. I wanted to avoid what I had already seen so much of: the kinds of broadly sociological, naively ahistorical, form-deaf, and clumsily judgmental writing that, it seemed to me, dominated academic comics studies to at least the mid-eighties. I was struck by the amount of bluntly ideological criticism of comics, say from a popular culture studies or media effects angle, often censorious: work that rested on assumptions about comics-reading that were unarticulated, unacknowledged, and vague. This kind of work lacked rigor and was inattentive to what readers might actually be doing when reading comics. It ignored, often for the ideological purpose of positing an uninformed and vulnerable audience, the potential for complexity in comics and comics reading. It showed little understanding of comics’ means of communication.
Remember, I’m an English Studies scholar, someone interested in texts, how they work, and how readers do work with them. I saw very little of this in the academic work on comics. Until Rusty Witek’s watershed book of 1989, Comic Books as History —the first sustained academic study of historical and autobiographical comics, and still one of the best—I wasn’t sure that there could be a literary monograph that got beyond vague, impressionistic criticisms of comics. That’s why Alternative Comics stresses form to such a great degree. That’s why I argued—and I’d still make the argument today—that even ideological or sociological interpretations of comics need to pay some heed to form. Because critics always need to have an idea, or multiple ideas rather, of what comics texts offer and what comics readers can do with them.
Of course, exclusive formalism has been discredited in contemporary literary studies. Certainly we try to acknowledge the historical, social, and ideological contexts of literature to a greater degree than was the case when I first went to college. Form alone is not enough. But, from my point of view circa 1996-2000, comics studies in academia had not yet fashioned a formalist toolkit, and had not yet earned its way toward a more rounded and complete kind of criticism, one in which history and ideology and form could all be attended to with rigor. My dissertation began with formalist criticism; by contrast, Alternative Comics begins with history. That switch alone tells you something about what was going on within and without me circa 2000-2005.
So, some of the emphases in the book that might seem puzzling or overemphatic from a historical distance are implicitly polemical, the results of my needing to position the project vis-à-vis what had gone before in academia. If Alternative Comics is, as Noah says, “seduced by form,” so be it; I thought (and still think) that a better alternative than studies that are ignorant of form. The book is a reminder that every such project represents an attempt to balance the scales, somehow; every such book tries to be a rejoinder, an intervention, in its field. Alternative Comics was my contribution to a conversation that, in the late nineties, seemed to me tentative and stunted.
The academic—or maybe I should say initially academic but ultimately mixed—nature of the book raises at least three problems. One is a question of style and register (my fellow Thought Balloonist Craig Fischer discusses this problem in his own terrific Transatlantica piece). I’ve been told that the work’s style is jargony; I’ve also been told that it’s casual. I’ve been told that the writing is “muscular” (yay) but difficult (boo). I’ve been told that it would be good high school reading. Man, multiple address is rough!
Another problem, and this is evident in the roundtable but I cannot blame anyone for it, is that the long lead time (time lag) typically required for academic book publishing can be a mystery to those who are not in that business. It’s hard to explain to people that what they were talking about in 2005 is something I could not have been writing about in a monograph published in 2005. Note how very, very often that issue has come up here. Academic publishing tends to be slow–it’s not uncommon for a book to be described as “new” in a review that appears two to three years after its publication date—and I am very slow. This is part of the price we pay for peer review, refereeing, mandated revisions and corrections, and so on.
The third problem is one of inadvertent obscurity. The way an academic project engages an intellectual issue may be wrapped up in arguments that are well documented in the professional literature but not so well recognized outside. Alternative Comics is a book that tries to walk a tightrope between that kind of specialized engagement and something of more general interest. I tried to make the book for both academics and non-academics, and I can only say I’m grateful for the continued interest in the book both “inside” and “outside” academia. I’m using scare quotes here because I’d like to call into question the idea that academia can have an exclusive “inside,” but of course I recognize that you can’t reach everyone all the time (a pressing issue called to my attention most forcefully by Rusty Witek, and taken up by Craig in his Transatlantica article).
Caught between so many things, Alternative Comics is, to me, a high-wire act. I’m very glad to see it on my shelf and to be the one who wrote it, and I thank everyone here for bringing the book back to life for me in a vivid and urgent way. I’m happy even to see the signs of its datedness—you cannot imagine my delight in seeing comics studies crest around me over the past decade and render some of my concerns moot. Yes! Go for it, I say; make my book seem old. Push the discussion forward!
Update by Noah: The whole roundtable on Charles Hatfield’s book is here.