Charles Hatfield’s Alternative Comics: An Emerging Literature, published in 2005, arrived at a time of immense excitement in the comics culture. The international new wave of comics had been changing the way we read and thought about comics for a good decade and were gaining an increasing institutional foothold, most notably in the cultural consolidation of the so-called ‘graphic novel.’ These developments are continuing, and comics, though increasingly visible institutionally, are still in a state of evolutionary flux. Hatfield’s book promised an in-depth analysis of this remarkable development, the objects of which he terms ‘alternative comics.’ But for all the book’s qualities, it did not fully to deliver on this, frankly seeming a bit of a missed opportunity. Books stick around however, and good books continue to inform and raise questions—a fact this ongoing re-evaluation at Hooded Utilitarian happily bespeaks.

But let me back up a bit and explain briefly the disappointment occasioned by the book’s promise. In surveying the emergence of this new ‘literature’, in the second chapter, Hatfield seems to stop just as he is getting to the interesting bits. Due perhaps to the relative lack of strong historical accounts of the last thirty years of comics history, he spends an inordinate amount of time discussing the underground and post-underground movements, from Zap to Love & Rockets, one could say. While these are of crucial importance to the emergence of the new wave, they are still arguably its constituents rather than its substrate. Perhaps Hatfield reasons otherwise, wishing to antedate ‘alternative comics’ by a decade or two, but if so, he does not fully explicate why we should collapse the distinction between periods that are usually seen to be connected but also somewhat distinct on grounds that range from the commercial to the social and the aesthetical.

This tendency is perpetuated through the book, which though showing an awareness of the new work that had been making waves for more than a decade at the time of publication—from Dan Clowes, Debbie Drechsler and Chris Ware to Julie Doucet, David B. and the Amok collective—concentrates largely on long-established underground/post-underground creators: Harvey Pekar, Gilbert Hernandez, Justin Green, Art Spiegelman. And as excellent as the individual analyses of their works are, they cannot help but make the book feel a bit retrospective.

Also, the fact that such large parts of the book are devoted to careful readings of a few select works takes away the momentum and sense of scale promised in the introduction and initial chapters. The importance of the featured creators is incontrovertible, and the issues Hatfield raises in his readings have been important to the development of alternative comics, but he seems reluctant to step back and diagnose larger trends or to exemplify them more broadly. This shortcoming is most apparent in the final chapter, which ostensibly joins the threads spun through the book and makes prognostications, but ends up getting lost in discussions of format that are no doubt important, but occlude the more pressing social and aesthetic discussion that at least this reader was hoping for.

Ultimately, the book reads like a reworked Ph. D. dissertation supplemented by disparate articles and conference papers—which I gather is what it is. It never satisfyingly coheres or expands in accordance with its promise. Since its publication, however, Bart Beaty has helpfully released his more tightly organized Unpopular Culture – Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1990s (2007), which despite its selective European focus does much to make up for the lack of a (roughly) contemporary critical history of comics’ new wave. And in any case, Alternative Comics contains such a profusion of illuminating analysis and compelling argument that it would be a mistake to dismiss for not being a different book than it is.

An obvious starting point for a critique of Hatfield’s book is its refreshingly trenchant and intelligently modulated, but also problematic casting of alternative comics as a ‘literature.’ I will refrain from debating the fundamentals of this issue, since Hatfield and Beaty have already discussed it in detail elsewhere, but I would like to point to some of its discontents as they manifest themselves in Alternative Comics.

Longtime HU readers will not be surprised at this, but it is my distinct impression that Hatfield’s literary point of departure blinkers him somewhat to the visual nature of comics. He is very sensitive to the medium as a narrative form, and to how both plot and character unfold sequentially in comics, but less to questions of how individual images work. In his elaborate chapter on Hernandez, for example, he emphasizes the artist’s “approach to drawing characters, which, though broadly stylized, nonetheless captures subtle nuances of expression and body language”, along with his panel compositions and transitions. But in his subsequent analysis Hatfield pays attention mainly to the latter, while composition is considered only fairly briefly, using basic cinematographic terminology, and style and graphic expression hardly discussed at all. Reading this lengthy and insightful essay on Hernandez’ work, the reader may be forgiven for forgetting repeatedly that she is reading about comics, not prose fiction.

Blas, Luba, and others in Hernandez' Poison River

A more in-depth examination of Hernandez’ drawing style and visual choices could serve to address the charges of fetishization of women often leveled at the artist (in this debate by Noah), inserting it more fully into the context of masculine Latino culture, examined so compellingly especially in Poison River. This could be matched against similar emphasis on male genitalia in that and other stories or tempered by showing to what extent Hernandez suffuses his idealization with observation, suggesting in a few, deftly placed lines such physical features as flabby thighs, pocked cheeks, or tensed shoulders (all in the supposedly exploitative figure of Luba). It could be used to indicate how, by following the physical expression of a character like the ambiguous Blas of Poison River, one might sense the complex emotional motivations for his duplicitous behavior. Such examination of Hernandez’ visual understatement could then be seen in relation to his suggestiveness as a writer, and also to his simultaneous broadness as a cartoonist, which could again inform one’s interpretation of his constant insertion into Poison River of the racist cartoon stereotype of Pedro Pacotillo.

Hatfield’s literary bias has its most interesting consequences in his discussion of authenticity in autobiographical comics in chapters 4-5—arguably the richest part of the book. Because of comics’ history as a medium concerned almost exclusively with stereo-/archetype and the fantastic genres, realism and the notion of authenticity have been fundamental to the redefinition of the medium since the 60s, and remain a central concern for creators today, whether working with fact or fiction. This is potently evinced by the continued centrality of autobiography in the new wave of comics. Although he could have stated it more clearly and exemplified it more broadly, Hatfield is clearly aware of this and his analysis offers a valuable inroad into a discussion of how comics engage these qualities.

Having established the inherent fictitiousness in any attempt at autobiography, he argues that comics offer a special challenge to the idea of non-fiction, in that their narrative visuality literalizes its constructedness—the “original sin of logical coherence and rationalization” as he describes it, quoting George Gusdorf—by making immediate and graphic the artist’s self-/world-image and repeating it in sequence (as “multiple selves”). The inward takes outward form, impression and expression merge.

In what seems to me a misleading distortion, he then goes on to connect this to the concept of irony, analyzing a handful of meta-reflexive works by Pekar, Clowes, Crumb, Hernandez, Green, and Spiegelman. Cartoonists with claims to authenticity, he asserts, tend to express their truth through self-abnegation: by making apparent their subjectivity and the artifice of their voices—what Hatfield calls “ironic authentication.” In the midst of this, he evokes Merle Brown’s distinction between the fictive and the fictitious, assigning to the former works that ‘imply the art of their making’ and to the latter—which we sense to compromise artists claiming authenticity—those that ‘strive for transparency.’

Hatfield is on to an interesting aspect of how comics approach reality, both historically and currently. Since their modern beginnings comics have candidly integrated meta-reflexiveness into their concerns—from the zephyr blowing away the sketches at the start of Rodolphe Töpffer’s M. Pencil (1840), to Winsor McCay’s Little Sammy Sneeze breaking the panel borders (1905), to the implication of the authorial hand in Moebius’ Hermetic Garage (1976-80). Hatfield’s analysis is valuable for the way it highlights this remarkable aspect of comics as they have evolved historically, and how it is currently being employed in the service of newfound authenticity.

But at the same time it seems an overly theoretical explication for how and why most reality-based comics aspire to authenticity. These comics are not always as meta-reflexive as the ones cited by Hatfield. While such stories as “The Harvey Pekar Name Story” (1977; excerpted at top) and “A Marriage Album” (1985), mentioned in the book, are, most of that autobiographical pioneer’s work is not ironic or even particularly self-critical in its presentation. And Chester Brown, in his I Never Liked You (1991-94) especially, relates intimate emotional truths without a hint of irony of self-abnegation. Following Hatfield, this should compromise the feeling of authenticity in their work, relegating it to mere ‘fictitiousness,’ while the self-parodic exercises of Crumb, Clowes and Hernadez feel more real, but this seems to me wrong. Despite the inherent theoretical difficulties of doing so, might it not be that the former simply convey their sense of authenticity through more traditional means, such as evocative description and emotional resonance?

Furthermore, irony—while apt for several of the works cited by Hatfield—is simply too limited and loaded a concept adequately to describe the self-representation in many reality-based comics. In the present debate Caro has shown persuasively how this notion of constitutive irony collapses when applied in a female context, and I would argue that it is also problematic in the case of many male cartoonists, such as the almost entirely unironic David B., Fabrice Neaud and (the mature) Joe Sacco.

The basic problem with the hypothesis is that it assumes some kind of neutral, or ‘transparent’, mode of representation, which is supposedly subverted by comics’ graphic and narrative revelation of the creator’s hand. It is unclear how Hatfield conceives of such representation in visual form. It appears that he considers visual art as basically mimetic, i.e. imitative of the exterior world, which means that an artist or cartoonist aspiring toward self-expression must work “from the outside in.”

From Neaud's Journal III (1999)

From David B's L'Ascension du haut mal (Epileptic) vol. 5 (2000)

This seems to imply that naturalistic rendering, such as Neaud’s, for example would be closer to this neutral ground than cartoony drawing such as David B’s. There is some truth to this—Neaud’s reliance on photographs and his apparently accurate portrayal of friends and acquaintances contribute substantially to the feeling of authenticity of his autobiographical comics, but for this reader David B’s portrayal of his inner life seems equally authentic. Moreover, Neaud is, if anything, much more overtly occupied with his role as artificer than David B., who—while emphatically internal and symbolic—rarely expresses concerns about authenticity. And in any case, the work of both artists—and indeed any visual representation—is quite obviously subjectively constructed. In other words, the hypothesis of “ironic authentication”, as illuminating as it is and as useful as it might be, is founded in sand.

Again, I suspect that this has to do with Hatfield’s literary bias. His neutral ground, really, seems ultimately to be language, which he asserts works “from the inside out.” To be sure, the abstraction of language is less directly tied to visual phenomenological reality than images, and it is clearly ‘internally’ constitutive to our experience of same, but why visual experience would be less internal or why linguistic formulation of autobiographical narrative, or whatever else, would be less obviously artificial than visualization is unclear.

To round off: none of this is written to disparage what is a consistently thought-provoking book, which not only makes a strong case for comics as a complex art form—or literature—worthy of sustained study, but engages intelligently with many of the central problems faced by such study—not the least comics’ nature as visual language, or linguistic visualization.


Update by Noah: The entire roundtable on Charles Hatfield’s book is here.

Also, for those following the whole discussion — the roundtable is going to go dormant for a couple of days while Charles gathers his thoughts, and then he’ll reply to the points raised in a series of post at the end of the week.

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