Kerfuffle, in common parlance, is a “disturbance, commotion, fuss.” Unassumingly rustic and awkward, kerfuffle is an inherently strategic word. Kerfuffle is cute and funny sounding. It’s easy to imagine a kerfuffle as a small sheep-kitten hybrid. It’s a wonder the English language Pokemon games never appropriated it. Not unlike baby-talking, kerfuffle allows the speaker to dismiss whatever battle or disruption she chooses as futile, silly, and beside-the-point, and to seem good natured, good humored and superior while doing so.
Critic Heidi MacDonald opens her article on the recent Jason Karns comments-war at The Comics Journal with the word. She writes, ”Indie comics circles don’t have kerfuffles—defined as in depth analysis of the social, racial or gender-based meaning of a certain comic or statement. Those are for nasty old mainstream comics.” Until the site shut the comments down, the ‘kerfuffle’ occurred between one camp who thoughtfully addressed the troubling prevalence of racism, misogyny and violence in comics and in Karns’ work in particular, and an equally passionate camp defending the nostalgic value of racism, misogyny and violence, (at least, that was my take.) Her reduction of this debate makes her sound parental and hokey. I wonder why she works so hard to diminish something the comics community cares deeply about.
MacDonald then shifts and observes the possible use for more study of ‘cultural context’ of independent comics, vacillating with statements like “BTW, I’m not advocating for change here,” and finally concluding,
“Context seems to have less and less inherent value against this backdrop where immediate emotional resonance is the currency. Perhaps it’s this very quality that makes comics one of the most vibrant and relatable mediums of the day.”
Perhaps it’s this very quality that makes comics such a safe haven for deeply offensive power fantasies. Most of the article wanders around without going anywhere. MacDonald hypothesizes that contextual analysis is only of “secondary interest to those consuming and creating comics,” yet its unrealistic to expect any subgroup or population to be motivated to contextualize itself. She also shores up her vision of contextualization with anecdotes from mainstream comics criticism. Tellingly, she relates Todd McFarlane’s rejection of deeper readings of his work, but does not give examples of actual analysis. Critique of a comic’s racial and gender-based meaning does not a cultural contextualization make. According to her definition, it makes a kerfuffle.
It’s unclear whether MacDonald is calling for greater analysis or not, and if the Karns debate doesn’t count for serious analysis, what would do better. MacDonald is a central figure in contemporary comics criticism, and its worthwhile to get to the bottom of what she means by ‘cultural contextualization,’ and why she thinks it could be helpful. What is she advocating for, if weakly? An institutionalized project? A tit-for-tat expose of independent comics’ parallel problems to superhero fare? Does pointing out sexism and racism count as contextualization? Warrant it?
Contextualization isn’t unknown to comics discourse, after all. MacDonald contextualizes Frank Santoro, the writer of the original Karns post, as a heart-of-gold veteran comic lover. How can he be blamed for seeing the best in a vile, racist comic book? He is part of a culture of fandom, a background MacDonald urges her readers to consider before she mentions anything else from the Karns debate. Karns is “one of those energetic and imaginative artists who has so far chosen to work in the gross out genre.” MacDonald typifies most cartoonists as “ethnically homogenous groups of suburban white kids” whose work falls short when they “stray too far away from writing what they know.” This last one deals in some knee-jerking stereotyping—I’d consider that a good part of independent cartoonists are rather open-minded art students living in urban settings.
The comics industry is structured around a cult of individual creators and super-fans. Even outside of autobiographical work, any ‘famous’ cartoonist’s life history and personality will be well-known, and factor into how fans read a work. Cartoonists are fashioned as auteurs, and creator rights seems to be the industry’s de facto high priority topic. Publishers and critics contextualize comics all the time, but always at the level of the creator, who is framed through the culture of fandom and attributed its origin story. Cartoonists are cast as introverted misfits with great imaginations– their particularities and belonging to the ‘brotherhood’ of comics fans rises above whatever culture they are ‘outsiders’ to. Their culture is their comic-making. To use an example Heidi MacDonald skirts around, Craig Thompson’s Habibi is pretty racist, but how can you deny that he’s also a really nice guy? He loves comics so much. Don’t his personal qualities somehow temper the book? Isn’t this all excusable, considering he’s a white guy from a small, Midwestern place? I suspect that ‘cultural’ contextualization is a comfortable go-to, and readily used to reconcile fissures like the Karns debate.
As she stated, MacDonald doesn’t want change. She calls for a future where independent comics can continue to move forward on its vibrant, beautiful trajectory, everybody holding hands and drawing in different styles, in a void, all on board. Emotional resonance is the currency. It is exchanged for the train ticket. The ticket-man accepts empathy, insight and nostalgia equally. He knows the first two are a little harder to come by. The important, unifying thing is that everyone is making comics, and that everybody knows your name. Karns isn’t so bad– he’s a fan just like you. Don’t go and make a fuss.