The comics blogosphere and comics academia can seem both unaware and mistrustful of each other. This is the case despite the fact that there are many people who work in both worlds. Probably it has something to do with the fact that traditional publishers are understandably wary of making their texts accessible online; probably it has something to do with a fan culture’s understandable skepticism of the ivory tower.

In any case, I thought it would be nice to buck the trend at least a little by devoting a roundtable to an academic work. After some discussion, we decided to read Charles Hatfield’s Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature, one of the most respected academic publications on comics of the last decade. The choice seemed especially pertinent since Charles is a blogger as well as an academic; he writes with Craig Fischer at the wonderful Thought Balloonists. (And Charles has graciously agreed to weigh in himself at the end of the roundtable.)

Alternative Comics turns out to be an excellent book to bridge the comics/blog gap in that its concerns, interests, and enthusiasms are ones which map closely onto the online world (or at least the art comix parts of it). Specifically, the book focuses on history, on formal elements, and on authenticity, especially as the last relates to autobiographical comics. Alternative Comics also, and somewhat to my surprise, engages in a good bit of advocacy — Charles definitely sees himself as validating comics as art and (more specifically) as literature for an academic audience.

The part of Charles’ discussion I found most compelling was the formal. Charles sees comics as “An Art of Tensions,” defined by how it negotiates between competing ways of making meaning: image vs. text, single image vs. image in series, seriality vs. synchronism, sequence vs. surface, and text as experience vs. text as object (loosely narrative vs. style.) Most of these contrasts will be familiar to comics readers, but Charles’ exposition of them is unusually clear, and his application to particular cases is very nicely handled. For instance, here’s a discussion of seriality vs. synchornism (events happening one after the other vs. events happening at the same time) in a page from Mary Fleener’s “Rock Bottom”:

For instance, the climactic full-page image from Mary Fleener’s autobiographical “Rock Bottom” depicts what appears to be (the story equivocates, forcing the reader to suspend judgment) a drug-addled sexual imbroglio between Mary, her occasional lover Face, and a glamorous woman named Roxanne. Fleener’s trademark “cubismo” style, a dizzying blend of Picasso and her own sharp-edged technique, offers a radically disorienting minefield of interpretive choices for the reader, as figures blend in a sexually suggestive synchrony. Is this a dream, as Mary’s sleepy expression on the top left implies?…The overlapping images imply an entire sequence of activities that Mary cannot remember upon waking the next morning…. Fleener uses a single composition to suggest successive stages of action.

(page 55)

Such formal exegesis points, for Charles, to the complexity of the task of creating comics and to the complexity of reading them. For Charles, comics require formal choices from creators and interpretation from readers. “Comics demand a different order of literacy: they are never transparent, but beckon their readers in specific, often complex ways, by generating tension among their formal elements.” (page 67) Comics are not, as they have often been accused of being, simple or easy — they require complicated parsing, and such parsing “is a must, not only for the discussion of comics as literature but also for sociological and ideological analysis of comics.” In short, to understand comics requires expertise — a move which neatly validates comics as aesthetic object while simultaneously establishing the necessity for academic interpreters.

Thus far I don’t have any particular objection. I agree that comics have complicated formal elements (as complicated as any other art form, certainly); I agree that taking those elements into account is useful for criticism (maybe not “a must” in every case, but I don’t need to quibble); and I agree with the implied conclusion that the academy and comics would both benefit from academic appraisals of comics.

So I can see the strategic and critical benefits of Charles’ central focus on formal considerations. Unfortunately, from my perspective at least, there are downsides as well. Those downsides being that Charles often seems so excited by formal elements that he fails to notice when the content is maybe not all that. Here’s an example from Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes:

Charles points out the formal mastery of this image:

Both the word balloons and the tree trunks in the foreground (which serve as de facto panel borders) parse this scene into successive moments, introducing the time element, yet the unbroken background blurs our sense of time, conveying at once the characters’ deep immersion in the scene of natural beauty, and the headlong urgency of their ride….

Which is all well and good, but it’s hard for me to appreciate the drawing with the huge wads of saccharine glop in my eyes. (They burn! They burn!) Really, this is barely above hallmark card sentimentality, with the romanticized child always already giving voice to the cartoonist/reader’s adult nostalgia. The synchronism, too, is a function of the nostalgia; the characters rolling through a timeless frozen present on their way to a timeless frozen past, all against the sketchy trees evoking a landscape of blurry but beautiful memory. It’s a banal, sepia-toned piece of wannabe-profundity; the sort of Zen and the Art of Childhood nonsense that Charles Schulz wouldn’t be caught dead promulgating.

Here’s another example, a page focusing on Maria, one of the central characters in Gilbert Hernandez’s graphic novel Poison River:

Charles has a lengthy analysis of this:

What is notable here is not Maria’s character per se, but the way her seeming absence of character, her stereotypic perfection and consequent emptiness, make her the perfect magnet for the desires of the three men, each of whom longs for affirmation from Maria but of course cannot trust her. That Maria embodies a stereotype of feminine affectation and charm is precisely the point: though she remains inconstant, unpredictable, and thoroughly amoral, her continual costume changes and affected good looks make her a perfect vehicle for the men’s desires…Maria’s story becomes the men’s story, a story in which all of the relationships follow a predictably dysfunctional pattern. The men change, and her costume changes, but the overall pattern stays the same.

Nowhere is this more evident than in a one-page, nine-panel sequence…in which Maria attempts to end her relationships with the three men by running away. As she tries, repeatedly, to leave by bus, she is stopped by men who want to marry her, take care of her, and make her stay. The same scene repeats itself, with variations, several times. Maria wears different clothes in each of the first six panels, and in the odd-numbered panels…talks to Peter, Fermin, and Garza respectively. Thus we know that this sequence covers a significant span of time, and a number of discrete incidents in her life. Yet the movement between these panels is deceptively easy: the flow of dialogue and action implies continuous movement within a single scene. A hand reaching for Maria in panel two leads easily to Fermin’s dialogue in panel three, though the two panels depict two different incidents (as signaled by Maria’s change of clothes.) A similar confusion occurs between panels four and five: again, a hand reaches for Maria, leading to Garza’s placatory speech in the next panel, but again Maria’s appearance changes between the two images. By thus blurring our sense of time, Hernandez suggests a pattern of repeated behavior. The dialogue and actions suggest a seamless sequence, yet the shifting costumes and rotating male characters point out the passage of a great deal of time.

This page depicts separate incidents from Maria’s life, yet verbal echoes suggest that these incidents all follow logically from a pattern of dysfunctional relations with men. In panel two, the ticket seller tells Maria that her bus will take her to Chilo to catch a train; in panel four Maria attempts to purchase a ticket to Chilo for the same purpose. In each case someone off-panel calls her name and reaches out for her. In panels three and five, lovers try to keep Maria by promising marriage, and in both she responds, “All right….” On the bottom tier of the page…Fermin, Garza and Peter share the same fate, loss of Maria, and all three call out for her in vain. Each man appears different, yet each calls for her in a questioning tone, revealing his surprise and aloneness as she finally escapes from him. These last three panels suggest a gradual loss of hope, as Maria’s lovers seem to lose the power to speak: we go from Fermin’s “Maria..?” to Garza’s “Mar..?” to finally Peter’s hopeless, inarticulare “M..?” The interplay of word and image links these separate instances within a consistent behavioral pattern and provides a sense of direction to what would otherwise be a radically disjointed sequence. Though time leaps forward with dizzying speed, via uncued scenic transitions, repetitions in both dialogue and composition ease the image/series tension and allow us to see these drastic shifts as part of a predictable, indeed inevitable process.

I’ve quoted this entire passage because it’s such a good example of the virtuoso way in which Charles manages to link his formal interests with thematic ones; Hernandez’s manipulation of sequence and time are here seen not just as tricks, but as the actual subject of the page. Repetitive but disjointed images signal a compulsive repetition of desire and finally of loss.

The analysis is also, to me at least, an example of the way in which an eagerness to appreciate formal virtues leads Charles to gloss over some possibly sticky issues of content. “What is notable here,” Charles says, “is not Maria’s character per se, but the way her seeming absence of character, her stereotypic perfection and consequent emptiness, make her the perfect magnet for the desires of the three men.” I see Charles’ point in terms of the formal arrangement of this page, certainly; Maria is a cipher moved from hand to hand and from panel to panel, the very repetition of her actions over time emptying out her individuality — she seems more like a mechanical dress-up doll than a person. Even her vacuous cynicism in the sixth panel seems rote; isolated in time it comes out of nowhere and goes into nowhere, a brittle façade emphasized by her solid black dress. She’s a noir silhouette, all curves and no heart.

But if Maria’s absence is “What is notable,” you have to ask, notable to whom? To the men who desire her obviously — but who are those men? Peter, Fermin, Garza, yes — but Peter, Fermin and Garza aren’t present in panel 6. The page is divided into three tiers of three, but that grid forms a single unity, and if that unity is not the absent Maria, then what is it?

The answer seems simple enough; it’s Hernandez himself. If Maria is a doll, it’s Hernandez who made her; it’s he who poured her into those bombastic proportions and then into those boldly-patterned clothes. It’s Hernandez who decided to make Maria a Dan DeCarlo pin-up, and then decided to make this page a fashion spread. She’s his Barbie, and much of the pleasure of this sequence, for both him and the readers, must be precisely the erotic montage; the excitement of seeing that form manipulated, thrown out of sequence and out of her clothes, as her life-in-time is chopped up into consumable images of those giant breasts, which are always front and center. In this reading, the distraught men in the bottom panel can be seen as, simultaneously, a hypocritical expression of guilt; a noirish masochistic thrill (emphasized by that very filmic final black and white patterned panel at the end); and a victorious crushing of the competition. Maria’s desirability is validated by the many men who want her, and her availability is confirmed by their failure. Only the creator/reader truly has her in all her surface voluptuousness — a surface which is, of course, all there is to her. In its insistent formalism, the page makes of Maria a form that can be possessed, both by her creator and by those who appreciate his skill.

I haven’t actually read Poison River, but other pages Charles reproduces, and the bits I’ve seen of Hernandez’s other work (I believe I read Heartbreak Soup once upon a time) don’t lead me to think this reading is out of bounds. Hernandez’s portrayal of female bodies is insistently fetishistic, and that fetishism seems only fitfully integrated into his often-stressed concern for women. In terms of his female characters, he eroticizes stereotypes at the same time as he critiques them, and the results, to me, often seem callous or banal rather than insightful. At the least, I think any reading of this page should confront more directly than Charles does the debt to pin-up art and the problems that suggests.

I think Charles doesn’t do that for a couple of related reasons. First, he’s more inclined to see comics history as a resource rather than a hindrance — as, for instance, in his thoughtful (if not entirely convincing to me) defense of the iconic use of funny animals in Maus. And second, as I’ve said, he sees formal complexity as the central aesthetic achievement of comics. Gilbert’s mastery of the comics medium is a seduction Charles has little interest in resisting.

These particular predilections — an enthusiasm for comics history, an enthusiasm for comics form — aren’t ones I share, which may be why I’m impervious to the charms of much of what most people consider to be the comics canon. Indeed, of all the comics Charles discusses — from Harvey Pekar to Crumb to Spiegelman — I pretty much actively dislike all of them. Still, Charles’ book helped me understand better why I dislike them. Or to put it another way, even when I disagree with it, Alternative Comics is a fun book to argue with.
Update: The whole Blog vs. Professor roundtable on Charles Hatfield’s Alternative Comics is here.

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