I’m reading Bart Beaty’s Comics Vs. Art. Kailyn already provided a review, but I thought I’d do a number of short posts on it as I went through.

Beaty’s first discussion (in Chapter 2; Chapter 1 is an introduction) focuses on the efforts to define comics over the years. These efforts are…um. I’m a little speechless, actually.

No doubt I’m overly harsh, but Christ, virtually everybody Beaty quotes in the chapter sounds about as sharp as a decapitated pig carcass. I’d always thought that McCloud’s sequential-art (so no single panel comics) formal effort to define comics was a kind of quintessence of stupidity, but compared to his predecessors, McCloud actually comes off looking pretty good. Colton Waugh, for example, says that comics have to have continuing characters and speech bubbles. M. Thomas Inge and Bill Blackbeard — two of the most respected comics critics — also argued that recurrent characters were essential to the definition of comics, even though, as Beaty dryly remarks, “Definitions of comics that privilege content over form have numerous significant logical problems.”

Beaty suggests that Blackbeard may have been motivated less by incompetence than by chauvinism; his definitions were designed to show that the Yellow Kid was the first comic, carefully excising European precursors so that comics could be seen as a quintessential American art form (like jazz without the African Americans, I guess.) Art Spiegelman, to his shame, has also dabbled in this sort of nativist nonsense.

Other writers, though, have embraced comics’ non-American history — by insisting that the Bayeux Tapestry and even cave paintings constitute comics. Then there’s David Kunzle — again, a much respected scholar — who insists that comics must be sequences (no Dennis the Menace) that there must be a preponderance of image over text (whatever that means) that the original purpose must be reproductive (so your kid drawing a comic isn’t your kid drawing a comic) and that the story must be both moral and topical, which doesn’t even merit parenthetical refutation.

Of course, there are reasons that so many respected scholars in this field have so determinedly spouted nonsensical gibberish. Mostly, as Beaty argues, it has to do with status anxiety; the hope is always that the next definition will make comics worthwhile, either by emphasizing their quintessential American vitality or by showing that they have been art since the first wooly mammoth drew the first hominid on the cave wall. Still, it’s hard to escape the sensation, reading through this chapter, that comics scholars today stand on the shoulders not of giants, but of infants. Beaty doesn’t quite come out and say so, but such ineffectual flailing disguised as scholarship seems like it has to have been deligitimizing rather than ennobling. If comics can’t generate more thoughtful criticism than this, then maybe it really is a debased form best ignored.

At least Les Daniels, whose Wonder Woman scholarship I admire, comes off looking good. Beaty quotes him as acidly commenting, “defenders of the comics medium have a tendency to rummage through recognized remnants of mankind’s vast history to pluck forth sanctioned symbols which might create among the cognoscenti the desired shock of recognition.” Nice prose too, damn it.

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