Tintin in Academia


Thursday, June 29, 2006

Due to some perversion of my taste (and too much exposure to English literature grad students in college), I’m kind of partial to satires of tortured academic theory, like Frederick Crews’s The Pooh Perplex and its sequel Postmodern Pooh. (It’s an acquired taste, and I certainly don’t recommend it.)

Yesterday, on the Literary Saloon, I came across mention of a book that seems to be of the same kind, only tackling comics criticism instead of literary theory, at least if this review in The Economist is accurate. (It’s hard to tell for sure, since the publisher’s page doesn’t appear to indicate any satirical intent, and I’m not familiar with the author’s previous work.)

From the Economist review:

[T]he Castafiore Emerald, the author argues with sweeping confidence, is not just the oft-misplaced bauble belonging to a forceful but absent-minded opera singer: it is her clitoris. Switch on the “sexual sub-filter”, he explains, and the jewel’s real nature is clear. … Poor Captain Haddock’s plaster-covered leg, meanwhile, is “a sign of both castration and an erection”.

The book is sprinkled with enough pretentious jargon, factual error and illogicality to infuriate and baffle the unwary. But the result is a satire of which Hergé, himself the creator of a cast of immortal parodies, would indeed have been proud.

In any case, this book seems right up my alley, and whether genuine or parody, it’s probably a harbinger of things to come for comics. As graphic novels continue to garner attention in high-brow journals and universities institute more comics programs and departments, it’s only a matter of time before the medium gets the full Roland Barthes treatment on a regular basis.

This will inevitably lead to a lot of grumbling and hostility from longtime comics fans, who are unlikely to cut some English professor (whose familiarity with the medium begins and ends with the Fantagraphics catalog circa 2006 Spiegelman and Satrapi) any more slack than they give Scott McCloud. (This is not meant to imply that McCloud and the professors don’t deserve to be criticized.)

I, for one, though, welcome the wrong-headed, jargon-ridden, and pretentious comics scholarship of the near future with welcome arms. No matter how popular a particular work or artist may be, cultural oblivion is unavoidable without a legion of eggheads scrambling for tenure and over-examining an artwork’s every nuance in search of “subversive” intent and hidden signifiers.

Mistakes will inevitably be made, and dumb judgments will abound, but it also may keep Harvey Kurtzman in print for posterity. Comics fans won’t be able to do it alone, no matter how many variant covers they buy.

UPDATE: It’s probably worth mentioning that as far as I can tell, Tom McCarthy’s book has not been published in the United States, and I have no idea if it ever will be. FYI, for all five of you who may be interested.

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9 Responses to “Tintin in Academia”
  1. Mr. Frowny says:

    How funny is this thing? Will I “howl with a laughter?” Is it a “gut-buster?”

  2. T Hodler says:

    I haven’t read the book myself, but I imagine the number of people who will find it funny is small (though it will probably include myself).

  3. Anonymous says:

    How long is it, Tim?

  4. T Hodler says:

    I don’t know how long it is. As far as I can see, it hasn’t even been published in the United States, and I don’t know if it ever will be. You could probably find out the page count on the British version of Amazon, though.

  5. DerikB says:

    Read Yourself Raw listed on their recommendations for August 2006. Though the price is in pounds.

  6. Dan Nadel says:

    It’s worth noting that the cover looks to have been drawn by Jochen Gerner, whose book TNT en Amerique is a visual deconstruction of Tintin. Here’s an explanation:


    It’s pretty good.

  7. Charles Hatfield says:

    Is this what academics do?:

    “scrambling for tenure and over-examining an artwork’s every nuance in search of ‘subversive’ intent and hidden signifiers.”

    See, as an academic going up for tenure soon, I wanted to be sure that I was doing the right thing…

    Seriously, I’d caution against assuming that everyone in academia thinks the same way. By its very nature, academe is not a hive mind. And certainly comics study in academe is not of one mindset or vocabulary.

    I’d agree that “mistakes will inevitably be made” in comics scholarship, but this ironic broadside against “jargon-ridden” and “pretentious” scholarship is a pretty hoary old trope. Things are changing in academia, within and without comics studies. Things always change.

    Academe, like comics itself, is a moving target, an unpredictable, hydra-headed, and adaptable beast. It ought to be, since discussion and debate are supposed to be at the heart of it. A lot of wrongheaded, or naive, ideas will be advanced in the course of that discussion, but, hey, that’s what primes the pump.

    Some of us hold out hope that academicians who want to study comics can also speak clearly to readers who aren’t involved in academia, and sustain some kind of dialogue about the work. Me, I believe in trying to write well, and trying to render my work as accessible as it can be while still ratcheting up the discussion.

    IMO it’s simply about taking comics seriously. Which is not the same as taking comics with poker-faced seriousness.

  8. T Hodler says:

    Mr. Hatfield —

    I agree completely. Perhaps my tone and intent weren’t clear enough, but I had hoped this take on academia would be seen as obviously exaggerated (and obviously incomplete).

    In any case, no lasting offense meant, and I hope none is taken. I have to say that I didn’t expect any genuine comics academics to ever read the post, or I might have been more careful while writing it!

    Thanks for your comment, and glad to see that you have a blog — I look forward to reading it.

  9. T Hodler says:

    Oh, and just in case I wasn’t clear enough, I definitely think you are correct in your statements about academics.

    I enjoy scholarly criticism more than the next joe, & certainly didn’t intend this characterization to be taken very seriously.

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